The Class 2A regional semifinal matchup between Illini West and West Hancock featured 13 combined hits, but none was bigger than Nolan Ard’s three-run homerun in the bottom of fourth inning.
The junior’s swing made the difference in the ball game, turning a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 advantage for the Chargers, who advanced to Saturday’s regional championship with the victory.
“Nolan’s been seeing the ball well the last few games,” said Illini West head coach Zak Huston. “I think we saw the type of competitor he is today. The stage wasn’t too big for him. He was right on it all game long, and he finally got one that he could keep fair.
“Great job there.”
The stage was set in the bottom of the fourth after a lead off walk by Daniel Harrell was followed by a single to left field by Colton Mellinger. Dusty Waddell laid down a sacrifice bunt to put runners on second and third with one out when Ard stepped to the plate and drove the first pitch in the at bat over the left field fence.
West Hancock pitcher Andrew Hardy then gave up a single to Peyton Porter, but induced two quick outs to get out of the inning with the Titans down just one run.
“I never expect this team to fold,” said West Hancock head coach Lee Purchatzke. “They didn’t, even when we made some mistakes and gave up one long ball. Things could have gotten away there.”
Instead, the two teams battled the last three innings pitch for pitch. Mellinger settled down after allowing four runs in the first four innings to allow no hits in the final three frames for the Chargers.
“(Mellinger) was nails today,” Huston said. “We really don’t have anybody on our staff who is overpowering, but Mellinger is able to locate his pitches and get guys to hit his pitches. We had some guys in those later innings who made the plays.”
West Hancock struck first, scoring two runs in the top of the second inning. Jonny Swanson and Caleb Adams connected on back to back one-out singles before Lucas Brumley hit a ground ball back to Mellinger, who threw to third for a force out. The ball was mishandled and Swanson scored to put the Titans up 1-0.
With runners on second and third and one out, Mellinger got a strikeout, but Cole Fox scored Adams from third on another Charger error to put West Hancock up 2-0 early.
“It didn’t look like a regional semifinal early on,” said Purchatzke. “Both teams were making some errors, but that’s baseball.”
West Hancock gave a run back in the bottom of the second after Tucker Anderson led off the inning reaching on an error. Hardy cut down Anderson on a fielder’s choice after a sac bunt by Dalton Elliott, but a walk to Harrell put two runners on with one out.
Mellinger delivered a single to left field that got past Brumley and all the way to the fence, allowing Elliott to score and cutting the Charger deficit to 2-1.
“I think both teams had some jitters early,” Huston said. “You’re going to have things like that happen in the post season, and we were able to battle through it.”
West Hancock responded quickly in the top of third, putting its first three batters on base. Trevor Knipe led off with a single and Luke Beeler followed with an infield single before Will Fox loaded the bases by reaching on another Charger error.
Mellinger calmed down and got a strikeout, and then induced a ground ball to shortstop by Adams that scored Knipe but allowed Illini West to get a second out. The Chargers escaped anymore damage when Mellinger got another strikeout, stranding two Titan runners on base with the score 3-1.
“We had the bases loaded and nobody out and managed to get out of that with only one run,” Huston said. “That’s almost a win in a situation like that.”
The stranded baserunners would prove costly for West Hancock, as Illini West again got to within one run in the bottom of the inning.
Braden Bennett drew a one out walk, and then scored when a base hit by Anderson was misplayed in left field to make the score 3-2.
West Hancock extended its lead to 4-2 in the top of the fourth as Jacob Lowman led off with a base hit before advancing to second and third bases on back to back ground outs. With two down, Knipe stepped up with a big hit to plate Lowman before being left on first.
The bottom half of the fourth set up Ard’s heroics, and Illini West took the game 5-4.
“I think both teams kind of gave each other a few runs, and in the end they hit more balls hard than we did,” said Purchatzke. “I think each pitcher made some pitches when they had to. Mellinger made a few more.
“We always kind of hang in there, today we just couldn’t get enough hits to overcome.”
West Hancock ended its season with a 16-9 record. Knipe was 2 for 4 with an RBI to lead the offense. Beeler, Swanson, Adams, and Lowman each had a hit.
Hardy took the loss for the Titans. He threw six innings, allowing three earned runs on seven hits. He struck out one.
Illini West was led by Ard with a 2 for 4 performance with three runs batted in. Porter and Anderson each collected hits, while Mellinger went 3 for 3 at the plate.
On the mound Mellinger also had a great game, throwing seven innings and striking out eight batters. He allowed one earned run on six hits.