The Knox College Prairie Fire won a stunning victory over the Ripon College Red Hawks on Saturday, clinching the Midwest Conference Championship. This victory was on the back of superb pitching, timely offense, and some coaching that left nothing to question and everything to be admired. But more than these tangibles, there lies something deeper in this team – something that evolved over the season. If you took a second to listen, either on Friday or even more on Saturday, something was different between the dugouts of the Fire and the Red Hawks. This Fire can chatter, get behind the men on the field, and use its ability to act as almost a tenth man on defense, and an extra bat on offense. Without the power of this bench, chances are, the Prairie Fire would be sitting in Galesburg right now instead of playing for a national championship.
“We’re probably the loudest dugout in the Midwest Conference,” said freshman outfielder Danny Salvato. “We’re the unofficial jerks of the team, I guess. Our personality helps the team stay loose. I’ve never been on such a loose team in a championship game. We just try to have fun.”
Salvato, as well as four other players, sophomores Alex Petik and Sam Magnuson, as well as junior Ian Pope, participate in what they call the “Sausage Race” every seventh inning, an homage to the tradition the Milwaukee Brewers have every seventh inning.
“The Sausage Race is a big favorite to the fans in the left field bleachers,” said Salvato. “We all run to touch the fence first, but nobody does, nobody wins. Then, I see Lucas Motta, and I get goose bumps.”
The left field bleacher fans, it should be noted, are probably the most vocal, ardent fans the Fire have. In addition to cheering on their teammates, the bench acts as a psychological weapon, breaking down the other team to the point of mental exhaustion.
“We didn’t start really winning ‘til the attitude [on the bench] changed,” said sophomore outfielder Blaine Murphy. “Now we crack jokes on the other team, cheer them on when they make mistakes. We’re just really loud, and our players feed off it, keep it going.”
Murphy actually mentioned a specific game when this attitude changed.
“One of the coaches told us we have to just be a-holes, and we took that to heart. From that day on, we kicked the crap out of them. Pope said this weekend, if we get on T.V. for the national tournament, we won’t be able to have any microphones in our dugout,” he said.
Besides being vocal and another weapon for Knox, Murphy, Salvato, and Petik are what many call the Ninth Inning Crew. All weekend during the tournament, any time these guys came in to play, Knox won the game. Murphy and Salvato generally came in to pinch run, and Petik usually plays second base, after junior John Curtin is taken out so Murphy or Salvato can run for him. Little things like this, having the right guys in at the right time, are what really works the magic on the diamond.
“Its crazy to be a part of,” said Murphy, who pinch ran in four of the games. “I’m really happy with what’s going on.”
Salvato agreed, taking his role to heart.
“Scoring a big run in a late inning feels great,” he said. “Some guys don’t like being taken out, but it’s fun to run on the base paths.”
This team is truly a unit, more so than some others in the Midwest Conference, and they will try to ride that to something special in the National Regionals. After all, seeing them on television would be pretty crazy, even if we couldn’t hear them.
As senior Paul Bennett said, “It’s a whole team sport, not just a couple of guys. The pitching, hitting, it’s all important.”
And, it would seem, so is the bench — Knox’s secret weapon.