After winning a conference championship their freshmen year and narrowly missing the Midwest Conference Championships again the following year, it is safe to say that the junior (0-12) and senior (3-9) conference baseball seasons did not go quite as planned for seven Prairie Fire baseball seniors.
But they ended their careers on a high note Saturday afternoon, picking up a win at Blodgett Field in the last game of their Knox careers, as the Fire split a doubleheader against Illinois College (IC) with an 11-8 loss in the opener before a 9-4 victory in the nightcap.
A brief ceremony was held in recognition of seniors Jordan Ball, Colin Davis, Bob Dempster, Jon Fletcher, Carl Hammer, Zach Ricketts and Logan Willits. The members of the senior class, along with Justin Cutter (transferred) and Ben Keathley (early graduation) were the last remaining members of the 2008 MWC champion baseball team that earned a berth into the NCAA Tournament.
IC (16-13, 4-6 MWC South), who eliminated Knox from playoff contention just a week ago, needed to sweep the Fire on Sunday to qualify for the Midwest Conference Tournament.
Knox (8-24, 3-9 MWC South) dropped the first game 11-8, but not before making things interesting. Freshman pitcher Paul Mills (1-3) was respectable, throwing four innings of one-run ball for the Fire, but ran into trouble in the fifth inning, giving up five runs on five hits. He finished the day with four strikeouts and 11 hits in 5 2/3 innings, his pitch count hampered by six Prairie Fire errors and many more plays that were not made.
The Fire trailed by nine runs heading into the bottom of the ninth, but capitalized on mistakes from IC relief pitcher Grant Boehne, who gave up five hits and six runs in 2/3 innings. Knox’s offensive surge was led by extra base hits from Fletcher, junior David Jewell, freshman Erik Smoy and Ball.
The Fire, however, fell just short in their comeback efforts.
“It was definitely a bittersweet experience,” Hammer said, an outfielder who finished with two hits, two walks and an RBI. “It was sweet to have a solid game in front of the home fans, but it hurt knowing it was the last time we’d ever wear the Block K.”
Knox carried their ninth-inning momentum into game two, where they led from the get-go. Davis (3-4) got the start for the Fire and threw an absolute gem, giving up just two earned runs on six hits in nine complete innings. Freshman Drew Mills got the start for Illinois College, giving up five hits and three earned runs in 2 1/3 innings.
Davis, who carried the Fire to a 9-4 victory, was backed by a strong offensive performance from sophomore Doug Lillibridge, who finished with three hits and a homerun in the bottom of the third inning. Freshman outfielder Jackson White also had a strong day at the plate, going 2-5 with one walk and an RBI.
“It felt good beating IC because they were a team we struggled with my entire career,” said Willits, an infielder, who scored two runs and three RBIs in the win. “I guess eliminating them really wasn’t on my mind. I just wanted to win our last game and was going to do anything I could to do that.”
Added Ball: “It was a great feeling to end our season and our college careers in such a strong manner. The seniors all did great, and it’s something we can all look back on and be proud of.”
For his efforts on the mound on Saturday, combined with a solid outing in relief (1.2 IP, 0 ER) against Millikin University on Wednesday, Davis earned Prairie Fire Performer of the Week honors for the second time this season. Davis finishes his Knox career in the top five of every major pitching category, including school records in career appearances, starts and innings pitched.
The win snapped a seven-game losing streak for the Fire, who finished the season eight games behind division-leading Grinnell College (17-16, 11-1 MWC).
“The ending of the seasons are always hard to accept, and I think we can walk away from those games knowing that we left it all on the field,” Ball said.
Each senior ended his career with a flourish; all six offensive players had at least one hit in the doubleheader, adding to Davis’ game two performance on the mound.
Despite failing to reach the playoffs, the Prairie Fire appear to have a bright future, as they return nearly all their starters for next season. Statistical leaders for 2011, all of whom will be back next year, include White, who batted .324, Smoy, who had three homeruns and Jewell, who drove in 23 runs.
“I think the biggest thing in general I’ll take away from Knox baseball is that success doesn’t come easy—it always takes hard work,” Willits said. “I owe Coach [Jami Isaacson] a big thank you for teaching us that.”
The Midwest Conference Baseball Tournament kicks off in Beloit, Wis. on Friday morning. Grinnell faces Ripon College at 9 a.m., while North Division winner Beloit College and Monmouth College square off at 9:30 a.m. The tournament champion receives the Midwest Conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.