At this time a year ago, the Okawville Rockets took off on an unexpected baseball playoff tour that sent them flying all the way to the Class 1A state championship game in Peoria.
They were 17-17 headed into the state title game and brought home a second-place trophy following a 9-3 loss to Cobden.
Can they make another long playoff run? At 14-13-1 after playing a competitive schedule, Rockets coach Jackie Smith likes his team’s chances.
“Top to bottom I think we are a more skilled group with more experience, but baseball is just so tough,” said Smith, whose team is the top seed at the Okawville Regional. “If anything, what I learned from last year is you really don’t know what to expect. That run to the state championship game was absolutely amazing and a testament to the kids.
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“They never got too high or to low and worked their butts off.”
Okawville returned seven starters this season led by Missouri Science and Technology pitching recruit Brendan Killion and Kaskaskia College catching recruit Brad Fuhrhop. All but one of the Rockets’ top pitchers also returned.
“They’re competitive, they hate losing maybe as much as the coaches do,” Smith said. “They want to work and put in the time and they’re a very driven group. They just know how to win.”
If anything, what I learned from last year is you really don’t know what to expect. That run to the state championship game was absolutely amazing and a testament to the kids.
Okawville coach Jackie Smith
Fuhrhop is the top hitter, carrying a .427 average with five home runs and 24 RBIs. Six other players have at least 11 RBIs, led by Will Aubel (.357, 12 RBIs), Payten Harre (.313, 11 RBIs) and Alec Wisneski (.309, 12 RBIs).
Shane Ganz and Noland Crane are tied for second in RBIs with 14 each.
Killion (6-2, 3.84 ERA) has been a workhorse on the mound, with Harre (1-4, 1.13 ERA), Ganz (2-3, 5.85 ERA) and Mason Drury (1-1, 3.17 ERA) also contributing.
Smith and Cobden baseball coach and athletic director Craig Partridge became friends despite the Appleknockers’ victory over the Rockets in the 2015 state title game.
“I never thought I would befriend someone that beat me in the state championship game, but we ran into each other at a baseball showcase and hit it off,” Smith said.
The pair decided to stage a “rematch” of the 2015 state title game. The game was played May 5 at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Itchy Jones Stadium, with Okawville winning 8-7 in nine innings.
The Rockets tied the game in the seventh when the ball got away from the Cobden catcher on a strikeout and pinch-runner Daniel Savard scored from second base. Aubel, a freshman, drove in the winning run in the ninth.
“There were quite a few people that made the trip down and it was a fun game for both teams,” Smith said. “It was just an overwhelming experience because not only were we able to make the memories, but to pull a few more friends out of the whole process was really nice.”
Class 1A Okawville Regional
Top seeds: (2) Okawville, (3) Odin, (7) Christ Our Rock Lutheran
Upset pick: Odin
Analysis: Okawville has a lot back from its state tournament qualifier last spring, but more importantly has a lot of players with big-time playoff experience in baseball and basketball. Playing at home an added bonus.
Class 1A New Athens Regional
Top seeds: (1) Valmeyer, (4) Marissa, (5) Metro-East Lutheran
Upset pick: Marissa
Analysis: After reaching the regional final last season and coming up short, the Valmeyer Pirates have more than enough talent to win the school’s first baseball regional title since 1971. Plus, they’ve handled all the other top competitors in this regional with little difficulty and have a strong lineup led by Southwestern Illinois College recruit Mark Nappier (.434, nine homers, 46 RBIs) and Easton Wallace (.478, 13 doubles, one homer, 23 RBIs).