Prep Baseball & Softball

Okawville Rockets back at state baseball tourney - just as coach’s fiancee predicted

Okawville pitcher Brendan Killion throws to catcher Brad Fuhrhop
Okawville pitcher Brendan Killion throws to catcher Brad Fuhrhop

Last July while discussing her 2016 wedding date, Katie Stork apparently knew better than anyone else the Okawville Rockets would be headed back to Peoria for a second straight state baseball tournament appearance.

Months before a pitch had been thrown, Stork urged her fiancee, Okawville coach Jackie Smith, to set their wedding date for June 25 to clear space for another state tourney trip.

“She wanted the June wedding and she said there was no way we would ever schedule it for that first weekend because we were going back to state,” said Smith, who has learned early on to start agreeing with everything his wife wants — especially since the Rockets followed up on Stork’s premonition by reaching the state tourney again.

It took eight innings and erasing a 6-1 deficit to beat Abingdon-Avon 8-7 on Monday in the super-sectional to make it happen, but it did.

Okawville (19-13-1) will face Goreville (26-6) in the Class A state semifinals at noon Friday at Dozer Park in Peoria. The Rockets finished second last season, losing to Cobden in the state title game.

“I said the odds aren’t great, it’s tough to repeat going to state in baseball,” Smith said. “But she was quite insistent that we would never schedule (the wedding) over the state tournament She flat out told me ‘No, we’re going back to state next year.

“It’s just an unbelievable accomplishment. It’s a testament to how hard the kids work. They buy in, they go to practie every day ready to work and they know what they have to do.”

She wanted the June wedding and she said there was no way we would ever schedule it for that first weekend because we were going back to state.

Okawville coach Jackie Smith

Don’t expect Smith to leave for Peoria without his two good luck charms: Ski citrus soda and an old Clemson University baseball t-shirt he’s worn underneath his uniform throughout his career.

“I wear the same thing every game, eat the same thing before game,” said Smith, who is bringing a 44-ounce Circle K “Polar Pop” cup from back home to fill with the Ski soda he’s bringing along to make sure he has his lucky drink. “I was the same way as a player. I was always taught to respect the streak.

“If I could get an IV of Ski, I would.”

The t-shirt was worn previously by his uncle, former Clemson player Tom Smith. Jackie Smith’s other tradition is a playoff beard he begins growing when the playoffs begin, just like NHL players.

“The red beard is not a good look on me,” he said, but who can argue with two straight state tourney trips?

Okawville faced Goreville in the regular season, with the Blackcats squeaking out a 3-2 victory April 16 by scoring the winning run in the top of the seventh. Okawville pitcher Payten Harre held Goreville hitless for 6 1/3 innings in that one, but the Blackcats have won their last 11 games.

“I think our kids will go into the game knowing that while Goreville is very, very good, we have a shot,” Smith said of a Goreville team making its third state tourney trip since 2010 under coach Shawn Trippp. “It’s not a fluke for them to be up there, you know you’re going to see a quality team. It’s a little more comforting that we know quite a bit about them, but Coach (Shawn) Tripp knows just as much and maybe more about us.”

Okawville will likely face 6-foot-6 junior Brant Glidewell (6-2, 2.48 ERA) or sophomore left-hander Brodie Lenon (6-1, 1.00 ERA, 74 strikeouts in 56 innings).

I think us going to state twice in a row really helped the town get on the basketball bandwagon, which is nice.

Okawville pitcher Brendan Killion

If Rockets senior ace Brendan Killion (9-2, 3.20 ERA) isn’t able to bounce back from a stressful outing Monday in the super-sectional win over Abingdon-Avon, Okawville would likely send Shane Ganz (3-4, 3.64 ERA) to the mound.

Smith’s career record at Okawville is 47-47, but he has guided the Rockets to back-to-back state tourney appearances.

“I don’t think the glass slipper fits us this year,” Smith said. “We knew we had a chance and this was our goal the entire time. We knew we had a state-caliber team.”

Team breakdowns

Goreville, which has eight sophomores and three freshmen on its roster, has several lineup threats led by Lenon (.485, 11 doubles, 31 RBIs). There’s also Glidewell (.385, three homers, 34 RBIs), sophomore catcher Chance Duringer (.379, 26 RBIs), sophomore outfielder Peyton Massey (.322, seven doubles, two homers, 24 RBIs) and senior Jared Vaughn (.359, nine doubles, two triples, 10 RBIs, 42 runs).

Okawville’s top run producer is senior catcher Brad Fuhrhop (.440, eight doubles, five homers, 27 RBIs). The Rockets also rely on Noland Crane (.253, two homers, 17 RBIs), freshman Will Aubel (.345, 16 RBIs), Ganz (.303, 15 RBIs), Killion (.303, 13 RBIs) and senior Alec Wisneski (.303, two homers, 14 RBIs).

“Our baseball IQ is a lot higher than most people would give us credit for,” Smith said. “We have some kids that just love the game, they study the game, they love the game and talk about the game between themselves all the time.”

Killion won the state semifinal game last year and like his teammates fought hard to get back to Peoria again.

“It wasn’t really talked about openly, but I think the guys knew that we were kind of expected to be good this year,” said Killion, who like many of his teammates has also been part of some talented basketball teams. “I hope baseball is becoming a bigger part of the town. Okawville’s a basketball town, but I think baseball is becoming more and more popular, especially with us winning as much as we are.

“I think us going to state twice in a row really helped the town get on the basketball bandwagon, which is nice.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

Class 1A State Baseball Tournament

at Dozer Park, Peoria

Friday, June 3

Semifinals

Game 1: Salt Fork (23-15) vs. Somonauk (23-6), 10 a.m.

Game 2: Okawville (19-13-1) vs. Goreville (26-6), noon

Saturday, June 4

Third Place

Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 9 a.m.

Championship

Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 11 a.m.

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