The Prairie Fire had all the right ingredients for a fairytale experience in the MWC Baseball Tournament: a much improved, much more mature squad took the field against the very team that denied the Prairie Fire a shot at the conference championship last year.
The lineup was stacked with upperclassmen that have fought to bring Knox baseball from a team that was winless in conference play just three years ago to a team that set records for conference and overall victories. Everything seemed just right for a storybook ending.
Junior Peter Marquardt, however, believed that to be far from Knox’s mindset. “Coming into Friday, we had just one pitch on our mind at a time,” Marquardt said. “We were confident we could get to the championship, but once you get away from that pitch-by-pitch mentality for even one second, you dig yourself a deep hole.”
Marquardt took the mound for the first game against St. Norbert, which was delayed for six hours due to rainy conditions, and ran into trouble in the first inning.
Alex Larsen knocked a double down the left field line with two outs, plating two runs for the Green Knights. While they would add runs on three more occasions, those first two turned out to be all St. Norbert needed.
The Green Knights sent Matt Freeman to the hill, and Freeman was dominant. The first hit he allowed was not until senior Ryan Hoffman singled the fifth, and in the four innings prior to that, Freeman was perfect on only 29 pitches.
Freeman showed no signs of slowing down and mowed down a Prairie Fire offense that left only six runners on base the whole game, only three of which made it to scoring position. The Prairie Fire could not push across any runs and fell 7-0.
The Prairie Fire’s next game was with the Pioneers of Grinnell, against whom Knox had taken three of four in the season series. The Pioneers sent Jason Ormond, who had a MWC-low 1.49 ERA, on the mound to start.
Knowing Knox needed to hit better than they had earlier in the day, head coach Jami Isaacson told his players “they needed to get up in the box, swing, and be aggressive.”
Ormond, who had only allowed seven earned runs over the course of the year, gave up six runs, five of which were earned, in just 3 2/3 innings against the Prairie Fire. Senior Caleb Weaver hit a three-run shot off Ormond to propel Knox’s early lead.
After the Prairie Fire got out to a 6-0 lead, the Pioneers chipped away periodically at the lead, though each time, Knox stood up to the challenge and added runs of their own.
A 12-7 win led the Prairie Fire right back where they started, with one more chance against the Green Knights of St. Norbert, championship hopes still hanging in the balance.
The Green Knights crushed the notion of a championship with a dominant offense right out of the gate; the Green Knights plated 10 runs within the first four innings. The Prairie Fire needed four arms to get through those first four innings.
Junior Nathaniel Grady gave up six runs in his three innings, while junior Bryan Leslie and freshman Mitch Weissenhofer allowed four more, while only retiring one batter.
The Prairie Fire scored twice on singles up the middle from Weaver and junior Erik Smoy, but the Green Knights proved to be simply too much for Knox, and took a 11-2 victory.
“I can’t point to one thing we did wrong,” Marquardt said. “We wanted to end their season, especially after last year. But St. Norbert had speed through their lineup from 1-9, whereas Illinois College had maybe one or two guys like that. They just used their athleticism to their advantage. We did everything we had to; we were mentally tough, we made the plays that were there and the adjustments necessary. They were just the better team.”
In the end, there was not the stereotypical happy ending. Knox did not get to hoist a championship trophy, did not get to come back campus heroes.
Despite that, the Prairie Fire came home with pride, with confidence that they are a legitimate contender in the Midwest Conference and with even higher aspirations for next season.
“Our seniors were the leaders of the team, the workhorses of the program,” Marquardt said. “But it’s not like before; we have talent from freshmen to seniors, with better and better recruiting classes coming in each year, learning from the work ethic and success the seniors brought. This program is ready to succeed, and this year was just the first taste.”