Knox Baseball was able to close out the season exactly the way they wanted: with six straight victories, two of them coming on Senior Day on Sunday. With four consecutive victories over Illinois College, 3-2, 12-9, 8-2 and 12-11, coming on the weekend, the Prairie Fire were able to win their first season series against a conference opponent since the 2013 season.
“I’ve always said that as soon as we learn to just have fun and play the game we all know, we’ll win games,” said junior Drake Sykes. “When the guys are loose, it’s amazing what can happen, and that showed these last couple of days.”
That may be the case, but it also doesn’t hurt to have a player like Sykes, who was four-for-seven with two home-runs, three doubles, four runs scored, two walks and four RBI on Sunday alone. Sykes far and away led the MWC in batting average and on base percentage, at .487 and .583 respectively, each of which is more than 40 points ahead of the next highest player. Moreover, Sykes owns the sixth-highest OBP of any MWC player in history.
“The things that man does on the baseball field are just unbelievable,” said senior Marty Salazar. “It has been a blessing for this school to have found him. I’m not sure what he can do to improve as a player, but knowing him, he’ll find a way to be even better next season.”
Sykes played well enough over the course of the season to win MWC South Player of the Year honors, a feat that has only been accomplished once in the past eight years, by Caleb Weaver in 2013. Sophomore Matt McCaffrey also made the All-MWC South team as a third baseman.
Knox has looked like a completely different team in the month of May, going 7-1 overall, 5-1 in conference. Senior Day especially was a mixed bag of emotions for Salazar. The Prairie Fire had an opportunity to get their first series victory, but Salazar was very cognizant that he was the only graduating senior on the team.
“”It was a really up and down kind of day,” said Salazar. “It’s always really sad to see people from your class go, but [Sunday] was especially powerful when you know there should have been nine or ten other guys standing up there with me.”
Still, Salazar made it count. In the first game of the doubleheader, he pitched over four scoreless innings to notch his first victory of the season, striking out the final batter of the game to put an emphatic finish to his Knox career.
“[Salazar] deserves nothing less than a fantastic farewell,” said junior Alec Jordan. “He’s one of those guys who doesn’t let the losing phase him. No matter what, he’s been a positive voice in our ears telling us that things will get better, that things will look up.”
And to a certain degree, Salazar was correct. While the losses didn’t get easier throughout the course of the season, they each provided the team with something to work on, or some mistakes to learn from. According to Sykes, in the early parts of the season, the team would hang their heads as soon as they were down a couple of runs, essentially accepting defeat. In both contests on Sunday and in one of the two games on Saturday, however, the Prairie Fire trailed to start the game and were able to come back and steal a victory.
“Winning a series like that is definitely a huge confidence boost,” said Jordan. “It proves to the young guys that we can hang with other MWC teams, and it forces us older guys to continue to be role models for the rest of the team.”
To call the future of a program bright after a disappointing season seems overly trite, but it holds true in the case of the Prairie Fire. The most important key to success will be retention: Losing only one player, and a relief pitcher at that, provides an opportunity for continued growth for young players, many of whom were forced into unfamiliar roles.
According to Jordan, there is the potential for a 12-person recruiting class coming in, which puts the Prairie Fire roster at 44 if everyone sticks it out. Such a large roster creates competition for each position, which is a breeding ground for success Ñ just ask the Women’s Soccer team. Ultimately, however, success or failure depends on mentality, not on any numbers.
“You saw young players at the end of the year start to actualize their potential,” said Jordan. “And that’s great. But you still have to work hard; you have to have the mindset that we want to get better every day. We can’t plateau. We just have to keep doing all the little things and working hard. Simple as that.”
As such, there is potential for growth from this team; however, that was also true of the team before them, and again for the team before that. To avoid an endless cycle of what could have been, the Prairie Fire will need to focus on hollistic improvement on a year-to-year basis, rather than putting all their efforts in to one season. The size of the team next season speaks to a commitment, but it remains to be seen.