The Prairie Fire had a lot on the line when they arrived in Jacksonville this Thursday to face Illinois College: with a good day, first place in the MWC South would be theirs. The Cornell College Rams came out and defeated IC twice over the weekend, which gave Knox a two-game lead in the South.
Knox, with its last four conference games against the Blueboys, needed just one win to clinch a spot in the playoffs. Two wins would get them the MWC South title.
The Prairie Fire were again driven by their pitching: the two Knox starters on the day (senior Ryan Stoens and junior Peter Marquardt) combined for four runs and 11 strikeouts over 14 1/3 innings pitched, earning each pitcher a quality start.
In the first game against IC, there were no standouts on the offensive side of the ball for the Prairie Fire; rather, it was just a steady attack up and down the lineup, with every starter aside from senior Ryan Hoffman recording at least one hit, especially in clutch moments when it was needed most. Cruising on good pitching and steady offense, Knox was able to clinch a playoff birth with a 4-2 victory.
In game two, with a full head of steam, the Prairie Fire stepped on the field, ready to snatch the MWC South title from the hands of the defending champions. The Blueboys had other ideas.
Knox hopped out to a quick 3-0 lead after four frames, and it looked like the Prairie Fire would coast to the title.
Not until the eighth inning did the Blueboys put runs across the plate. A double by Illinois College’s Matthew Pardo brought the Blueboys within one, and a solo shot by the Blueboys TJ Albers in the bottom of the ninth sent the game into extras.
When Knox put across three runs in the top of the eleventh, it looked as if the game was over.
However, the Blueboys nearly had enough fight to come back one more time, scoring two runs in the bottom half of the frame, but senior Gabe Ayers was able to settle down and give the Prairie Fire their first MWC South title in five years.
Earlier in the week, the Prairie Fire headed to Appleton, Wis. for a doubleheader against the Lawrence University Vikings.
After a 7-3 loss to Lawrence over spring break, the Prairie Fire proved they could play with the Vikings. Knox took the first game of a non-conference doubleheader against Lawrence 12-6, capitalizing on early offense: the Prairie Fire plated six runs over the first two innings.
After Knox padded their lead to 9-1 on a three-run bomb from senior Ryan Hoffman, the Vikings chipped away at the lead, scoring twice in the fourth and sixth and once more in the seventh.
The Prairie Fire held firm, however, and scored three more runs en route to their 12-6 victory on 18 hits. The offense was led by Hoffman, who had five RBIs, junior Jackson White, who managed two RBIs and three runs on four hits and senior Caleb Weaver, who had three hits, two RBIs and three runs.
In game two, however, the Prairie Fire disappeared on both sides of the ball. Only junior Michael O’Connell produced more than one hit for Knox, and freshman Jeremy Gogoel, who had one of the Prairie Fire’s lowest ERAs (3.55) before the game, could do nothing to set down the scorching bats of the Vikings, who scored seven earned runs in just 2/3 of an inning of work from Gogoel. Lawrence was able to cruise to an easy 12-1 victory.
Junior Dustin Armstrong said of the weekend “It’s a long trip to Wisconsin, especially considering it was our first overnight aside from Florida. That took a toll, but it’s nothing we can’t shake off. We came into the weekend with low energy, expecting things to just work out for us. And because of that, the game made us pay, as it tends to do. That said, it’s made us aware that from this point on, we need to go at every game like it’s the championship.”
Editor’s Note: Jackson White is co-sports editor for The Knox Student.