Even with an 11-3 Southwestern Conference record, sharing the league with Alton's presumed major league draftee Bryan Hudson and ever-contending Edwardsville, the O'Fallon Panthers sometimes seemed like a dark horse in their own region.
Yet after a dominating 6-0 win over Minooka on Saturday on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, the Panthers have found themselves where they haven't been in five years — Class 4A sectional champions.
Junior pitcher Bradley Harrison shut out Minooka on two hits while striking out 12 to lead O'Fallon to the victory.
The Panthers (30-9) advance to the Champaign Super-Sectional against Chicago Heights Sectional champion Providence Catholic at 6 p.m. Monday. Due to the success of the University of Illinois baseball team in the NCAA Tournament, the game has been moved to the Corn Crib in Normal, home of the Frontier League's Normal CornBelters.
"I've told everybody along the way that there hasn't been a hiccup in our season," said O'Fallon coach Jason Portz. "We've lost some ball games, but we haven't had a spell where we played poorly. We kept working and grinding while some other teams got the notoriety, maybe more than we did.
"But we were 11-3 in our conference, which says a lot about where our team is. We're playing as well as a baseball team can play right now."
Harrison's success came due to his ability to get ahead on the count with his fastball, then taking what Minooka gave him — namely a low strike zone where breaking balls in the dirt kept the Indians chasing.
"Our discipline on that slider in the dirt could have been better," said Minooka head coach Jeff Petrovic. "That takes nothing away from their pitcher because he had the control to keep going there. He's probably the best pitcher we've faced this year."
Minooka had Harrison in trouble just once during the game, putting two runners in scoring position with one out in the third. But Harrison struck out No. 3 hitter Nicholas Petrak, then got clean-up hitter Tyler Paulsen on a ground out back to the mound to end the inning.
"That was huge," Harrison said. "I definitely built off that."
From there, he struck out six consecutive through the fourth and fifth innings and remained perfect through the end of the game.
"It starts with the fast ball," Harrsion said. "Being able locate the fastball it sets up the other pitches. The other pitches were good and sharp and they were biting on pitches that were out of the zone."
Harrison gave himself the only lead he needed in the first inning with a double to score lead-off hitter Dillon Weiss. The Panthers scratched out another run in the fourth when pinch hitter Joe Guithues scored Holba from third on a ground-out.
But O'Fallon blew it open on junior Bradley Snyder's first-ever home run in the sixth and a three-run rally in the seventh. Weiss, Nick Crabtree and Snyder picked up RBIs to make it a 6-0 game.
"The runs at the beginning of the game are important, of course, but those seventh-inning runs were huge," Portz said. "If you are going into the bottom of the seventh with a two-run lead instead of a six-run lead, it's a totally different ball game."
O'Fallon had nine hits in the game, including 2-for-4 days by Harrison and senior Kyle Van Bevern. The Panthers offense got help from two errors by Minooka, whose season ends at 29-10.
"It wasn't our best game today," Petrovic said. "At this point in the season, you can't allow an opponent to take extra bases and you have to be able to put the ball in play. We gave them too many opportunities and 12 strikeouts just killed us."
Game at a Glance
PANTHER FIRST: Dillon Weiss led off with a walk and advanced to second when a balk was called on Minooka pitcher Joe Butler. He scored on a double to the right-center by Bradley Harrison. O'FALLON 1, MINOOKA 0
PANTHER FOURTH: Chris Holba singled and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Jacob Holl struck out on a ball in the dirt and was able to reach first when the ball got tangled in the umpire's feet. Holba went to third and scored on a ground ball by pinch hitter Joe Guithues. O'FALLON 2, MINOOKA 0
PANTHER SIXTH: Bradley Snyder led off with a home run to left. O'FALLON 3, MINOOKA 0
PANTHER SEVENTH: Camden Bauer and Kyle Van Bevern each singled with one out. Weiss laid down a safety squeeze to score Bauer and advanced to second on an error by the Minooka first baseman. Nick Crabtree singled to score Van Bevern. Weiss tagged and scored from third on a fly ball in foul territory. O'FALLON 4, MINOOKA 0
RECORDS: O'Fallon (30-9) , Minooka (29-10)