NORMAL – Not every high school sports team receives the chance to play for a State championship on their home field. That is usually the sort of thing every player dreams about when the thought crosses their mind. But for Normal’s University High Pioneers, who were a number one seed, faced another number one seed, Freeburg, and wound up playing in the third place game after losing to the team nicknamed the Midgets at Duffy Bass Field on Saturday. As a result of that loss, the Pioneers found themselves playing for and placing third after a 7-5 win over Central State 8 foe Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin.

U-High 7, Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin 5 To Take 3rd Place: U-High (32-4) went to work early against the Cyclones with lead off batter Karson Bonaparte walking followed by being his being driven home by outfielder Chase Adams to start the scoring, 1-0, with a blast into center field for a double. A fielder’s choice helped Evan Jones get on base and later score courtesy of Jack Bach’s home run over the left field wall, putting the Pioneers up before SHG came to bat, 3-0.

U-High was able to add two more runs in the 4th inning courtesy of Matt Armstrong’s single sending Bach and Matthew Davenport across home plate for two more runs, putting U-High up, 5-0. Springfield SHG (cut that lead to 5-2 in the bottom of the 5th inning when Jack Schafer’s single sent home Paul Gilmore who singled and Jayden Davis who walked. Those runs reduced U-High’s lead, 5-2.

The Pioneers advantage increased an inning later to 6-2 when Jones got on base and was singled in by Daniel Mosele. The Cyclones kept pace in that inning, too, adding three runs beginning the inning with Louie Bartletti’s leadoff walk, followed by singles from Nic Crowe and Gilmore, a walk given Jaydon Davis, and single by Schafer reduced U-High’s lead to 6-5. Senior Macallen Conklin led off the top of the 7th inning with a home run which cleared the left field wall.

Winning pitcher Chase Adams struck out eight and walked one in 4 2/3 innings of work.

“I wasn’t surprised about the heart our players showed that last game,” explained Pioneers head coach Steve Paxson, elaborating knowing they were playing for third place might have created a situation where his players’ effort might not have been what he did see throughout the contest. He said the team showed they put in what was needed to win the contest. “I’m just really proud to have coached this group. They’re really a special group.”

Five-Run 3rd Inning Puts Freeburg Over U-High, 5-3: Freeburg (35-3 following this game) employed a five-run third inning to overcome a Pioneers lead earlier in the semifinal contest to defeat the Pioneers, 5-3, to advance to the Class 2A Championship while sending the Pioneers to the 3rd place game to face the Cyclones. U-High scored two runs in the top of the 2nd inning as Evan Jones walked and advanced to 2nd base on a wild pitch. The next batter, Carson Beal, flew out to left field for the first out of the inning, and was followed by Mosele who doubled scoring Beale, putting U-High up, 1-0. A single by Davenport got Mosele home for U-High’s second run of the inning, giving the Pioneers an early 2-0 lead.

In the top of the 3rd inning, Adams would push U-High up, 3-0, on a single and stolen base followed a base hit by Macallen Conklin.

But Freeburg scored all five of their runs in the bottom of the third inning. The scoring barrage began as with one out, Austin York and Jacob Blomencamp led off the inning with a walk and single, respectfully, and then committed a double steal. From there, Colin Bruggemann singled, scoring the pair, cutting the Pioneers’ lead, 3-2. The next batter, Eli Hoerner singled deep into right field, and was followed by Eli Hill would be walked. The pair then committed a double steal and the bases were loaded when Hayden Ott singled completing the scoring.

NORMAL – It’s almost as if we have seen this before: University High’s Class 2A top seed boys’ baseball team powers through a single inning to get a number of runs to outpace an opponent. On Monday at Jack Horenberger Field on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus during their Super-Sectional game, an 8-run second inning helped power the Pioneers past 5th seed Ottawa Marquette, 9-2 and toward a State semi-final against another number one seed, Freeburg, for a Friday 1p.m. contest. That game will be held on U-High’s home field, Duffy Bass Field.

The winner of that contest would advance to IHSA Class 2A Championship to take on Duffy Bass Field with the winner of the other semifinal to be played Friday between top seed Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin and 2nd seed Elmhurst-based Timothy Christian. The championship also will be held at Duffy Bass Field starting at 7p.m.

But during Monday’s contest, after a scoreless 1st inning for both sides, the Pioneers (31-3 after this game) exploded for eight of the nine runs they needed to keep marching toward their goal of getting a game closer to a state championship. They managed to start by loading the bases courtesy of a single by sophomore first baseman Chase Adams’ single followed by senior center fielder MacCallan Conklin being walked by Crusaders starting pitcher Taylor Waldron. He was followed by left fielder Evan Jones to load the bases but those emptied quickly for a 3-0 lead when junior designated hitter Jake Swartz singled.

The next batter, senior shortstop Daniel Mosele walked and was followed by junior catcher Evan Kochel’s single, and was followed by a bunt single from senior right fielder Matthew Davenport, scoring two more runs putting U-High up, 5-0. Kochel, Davenport, and

third baseman Karson Bonaparte would get on base and add three more runs leading to 8-0 lead the Crusaders faced as they entered the bottom of the 2nd inning. U-High also was able to capitalize on a total of six errors Crusaders players made during the contest.

Ottawa Marquette got its first run in the bottom of the 2nd inning with senior left fielder Grant Waldron getting a single and advancing to second on a wild pitch from U-High’s starting and winning pitcher, Jake Swartz. After striking out the next batter, third baseman Brady Ewers, doubled. But the next batter, Hayden McKenna hit into a fielder’s choice and was followed by right fielder Jake Thomas who made the third out. Waldron rounded the bases during those actions, putting the Crusaders on the board trailing, 8-1.

Ottawa center fielder and lead off batter Nick Melvin singled and was the only other Crusaders player to score during the contest.

Ottawa Marquette finished the season with just a 17-3 record following this game due to players not being able to play due to contracting the COVID-19 virus.

About the number of runs U-High scored, head coach Steve Paxson explained, “Going into the post season, if we could score four runs, I felt our pitching would be able to hold it steady as long as we played solid defensively.”

Giving praise to his winning pitcher, Paxson added, “When you have a kid like Jake Swartz on the mound, it gives your team a lot of confidence.” He then posed a rhetorical question while praising his pitcher, asking, “If we could get to four runs, we would be in pretty good shape, and getting to 8 is more than a coach can ask for, right?”

Swartz ended the day with 14 strikeouts on the day and his coach said, “The first couple innings, he had a little juice – he was up to 92, 93 miles per hour the first couple innings. He actually got better after that because he was able to command breaking balls.”

As for playing State games on their own home field, Paxson said he mentioned to his players, “Wouldn’t that be great?,” and not that that’s the reality of the situation, Paxson said, “It just feels great that we’ll actually be able to do it.”

“You know, one of the worst feelings would have been to watch someone else play on our home field,” Paxson said, adding now that it will be the Pioneers who will do it, “This is the first time I can remember ISU holding a State tournament, so we feel really blessed and fortunate to get there because we had to beat some really good teams to get there.”

He credited the seniors on his team for “putting pressure on the defense by keeping the ball in play.”

Swartz, who is bound to attend and play baseball at University of Illinois, said seeding of the opposing team didn’t enter his mind, and he added about his effort against the Crusaders, “I knew I just had to pitch my own game and once I got a feel for my off-speed pitches, I kind of got going really well, and started commanding very well. Once I got my curve ball going, I kept them off-balance and it seemed to work.”

He added, “Going to State has been our goal all year, for sure, but getting there isn’t enough for us. We want to try our best to get the job done.”

“To win, we told our kids, we were going to have to play pretty flawlessly defensively and make some tough pitches and get some key hits,” explained Ottawa Marquette head coach Todd Hopkins. “But we didn’t do those three. The second inning was the back breaker, but we’ve been doing the same thing to other teams, too, capitalizing on their mistakes. But U-High was a tough team, and I’m sure they’re going to be a tough team on Friday.”

He added, “We knew the game wasn’t going to be too big for us, and it wasn’t. We had a bad second inning and that was the ball game.”

By Steve Robinson | June 8, 2021 - 10:46 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – University High’s Class 2A top seed boys’ baseball team used a 5-run fifth inning to outmaneuver 4th seed Chillicothe IVC, 7-2, to advance to one step closer to a sectional championship. The midsection of the Pioneers batting order starred in the effort which helped head coach Steve Paxson’ crew advance to host a Wednesday home game against second seed Macomb. The winner of that contest will advance to the Sectional championship where they would face either Eureka or Knoxville. Chillicothe IVC suffered from 6 errors during the course of the game following getting their two runs in the contest

Left fielder Evan Jones led off for U-High (28-3) in the second inning, and advanced to score thanks to pitcher Jake Swartz and designated hitter Matthew Davenport to put the Pioneers up, 1-0. An inning later with two out, Pioneers shortstop Daniel Mosele scored after a base on balls to center fielder McAllen Conklin and a single to Jones getting him across home plate for a Pioneers 2-0 after three innings.

Shortstop Noah Chase got on base for Chillicothe (19-7) in the top of the 5th inning aided by a one-out walk to left fielder Brenden Adler and a daring double steal, cutting U-High’s lead, 2-1.

With one away in the bottom of the fifth inning, Conklin singled and advanced on a Chillicothe two-base error. That was followed by another hit by Jones and Pioneers pitcher Jake Swartz walking. The Pioneers would tally five runs total giving them a 7-1 lead.

The visitors cut the Pioneers lead to the eventual final score in the top of the sixth inning after leadoff batter Kam Wollard singled, stole second and scored on an error allowing him to advance from second to home.

Swartz pitched for 5 2/3 innings registering 9 strikeouts and a walk coming away with the win. Reliever Trevor Young came in and struck out two to close out the contest. IVC pitcher Keegan Rainey pitched 4 2/3 innings striking out three and walking four.

“My main plan was to come in and get ahead on batters, getting the first strike or two,” explained Swartz. Doing that, he explained, would allow him to use off-pitches once he had a two-strike count against batters.

“I wanted to establish a fast ball early on them,” he added, explaining, “I knew they had good hitters so I tried to mix it up a little bit. For the most part, just try to pound my fast ball in the strike zone and it worked.”

Chillicothe players and coaches exited the field quickly making them unavailable for comment following the game.

The Pioneers were scheduled to host second seed Macomb Wednesday afternoon at Duffy Bass Field.

By Steve Robinson | May 25, 2021 - 3:31 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – University High School senior shortstop Abby Knight blasted two home runs to help her team beat Normal Community West Monday, 5-3, at Champion Fields.

The lead off batting senior shortstop’s first turn at the plate ended in a home run over the center field fence giving the Pioneers (15-5) a quick 1-0 lead.

Two innings later, in the top of the third, with two outs and nobody on base, Knight belted a 2-ball 2-strike pitch from Wildcats pitcher Rylee McConigle over the center field fence a second time, giving the Pioneers a 2-0 lead.

In the top of the sixth inning, with one out, Knight walked and advanced to second on a sacrifice by pitcher Jen Kuhn, and scored on an error by West shortstop Landes Benedict, upping the Pioneers’ lead to 3-0.

With one out in the top of the seventh inning, Pioneers center fielder Brooke Cordray singled and was followed by designated player Evellyn Kline’s single and Knight being walked. Winning senior pitcher Kuhn followed and was walked scoring Cordray, increasing U-High’s lead, 4-0. The Pioneers last point came with Kline crossing the plate.

Normal West freshman third baseman Emily McCandless led off her team’s bottom half of the seventh with a walk followed by right fielder Gracie White striking out for West’s first out. Benedict followed and benefitted from a Pioneers two-base error. Sophomore Emily Kobel followed with a three-run shot that left the yard over the left field fence resulting in the eventual final score. The loss dropped the Wildcats record following this game to

West sophomore center fielder Katie Poehlman hit a double after that, followed by a single from Post being walked. But with two on, West first baseman Claire Post hit the ball in the direction of U-High sophomore third baseman Lauryn Blemler who fired the ball to sophomore first baseman Adi Rumler for the final out of the contest.

Kuhn’s win for the Pioneers increased her record to 10-2 while the loss went to McConigle whose record dropped to 12-3. Normal West’s record dropped to 20-5.

Of the two home runs she hit toward U-High’s victory, Knight said, “I take batting practice and I just try to make contact and it goes out like it did today.” She said Pioneers head coach Al Tolliver had stressed trying to make contact when there were two strikes in the count. “I look for lower pitches,” she added regarding what she tries looking for when at the plate.

“It’s always nice when Abby starts a game with a home run,” U-High head coach Al Toliver said. “It’s nice to get those early leads but we knew it would be a battle at the end and it was.”

“We kind of need to get our bats going a little earlier,” said Normal West head coach April Schermann. At times, she added, “We had runners in scoring position and we didn’t come up with that big hit.

Mother Of Normal West Player Honored: Schermann said her team is honored to be able to play for Melissa Fasig, mother of Wildcats player Kenzie Fasig. Melissa is currently battling breast cancer. All the monies the team has raised is helping bring awareness to people and raise money to help with the Fasig’s medical costs. “That’s really important to us,” Schermann added.

By Steve Robinson | April 18, 2021 - 10:57 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – A trio of University High players – senior running backs Justin Johnson and Peter Deffenbaugh, and senior wide receiver Gavin Markert proved too much for visiting Champaign Central High School Friday night as the Pioneers defeated the Maroons, 63-12, in a non-conference contest at Hancock Stadium on Illinois State University’s campus. The Maroons were a hurried substitution for the team U-High was originally scheduled in this home contest, Decatur Eisenhower High School. That school bowed out due to issues related to COVID-19.

After the Maroons punted to end its initial set of downs from the kickoff and displayed poor execution getting rid of the ball on fourth down, U-High (2-3) began its first possession at Champaign’s 28. Five plays later, Deffenbaugh’s rushing play into the end zone put his team in front, 7-0, following sophomore Declan Duley’s successful extra point at 9:23 in the first quarter.

U-High’s next possession started courtesy of an interception by Johnson in his role as defensive back, picking off a pass from Maroons junior quarterback Cody Brown. That interrupted the Maroons’ drive which began at their own 25 but put the Pioneers starting at the Maroons’ 48. Two plays later, Deffenbaugh’s 10 yard rushing touchdown at 7:22 in the quarter followed by Duley’s extra point added to the Pioneers’ lead, 14-0.

The Pioneers’ defense got into the act of scoring, too, during this contest, thanks to an interception by senior defensive back Jack Dameron. With Champaign starting a drive at their own 21, Dameron picked off Brown’s third down pass running it in for a 33 yard score at the 5:03 mark followed by Duley’s extra point, increasing U-High’s lead, 21-0.

Big 12 Conference opponent Champaign Central (0-5) ended their ensuing possession with a turnover on downs giving U-High the ball at the Maroons’ 43. Five plays later, sophomore quarterback Colin Cunningham connected with Markert for a 31 yard touchdown with 1:41 left in the quarter followed by Duley’s extra point, upping the Pioneers’ advantage, 28-0, going into the second quarter.

The ensuing set of downs for Champaign Central (0-5) resulted in a punt which put the Pioneers starting at their own 33 as the final seconds of the first quarter ticked away. Four plays later, a 27 yard pass from Cunningham to Johnson, followed by Duley’s extra point, put the Pioneers up, 35-0, at the 10:46 mark.

Defensive lineman Elon Mondy recovered a Champaign fumble interrupting a drive which started at their own 26 but ended at U-High’s 47, giving possession back to the Pioneers. Six plays later, junior running back Neil Sundaram scored from four yards out. Duley’s extra point extended U-High’s lead, 42-0, with 2:44 until halftime.

Champaign Central scored with 48 second left on a 60 yard pass from Brown to freshman receiver Braylon Thompson, but the Maroons’ 2-point conversion try failed, allowing U-High to maintain a 42-6 lead with 4:48 left in the quarter.

Each team experienced a set of downs resulting in a punt after that, and when the Pioneers got the ball back following the Maroons’ punt, they started at Champaign’s 40. One play later, Cunningham connected with Johnson again, this time for a 40 yard touchdown strike, followed by another Duley extra point, giving the Pioneers a 49-6 lead going into halftime.

Once the second half began, game officials employed IHSA’s “Mercy Rule,” – as a result of the 40-point plus difference in the game score, using a continuously running clock, stopping it only for timeouts taken by a team or because of an injury. The running clock began as the third quarter opened. Three plays after U-High received the second half kickoff, Markert scored his second touchdown of the contest from 25 yards out from Cunningham’s pass at 9:49 in the quarter followed by Duley’s extra point, increasing the Pioneers’ lead, 56-6.

Champaign Central scored their last points of the night on a handoff from Brown to junior running back Davis Willis for a seven yard rushing touchdown at 3:59 in the third quarter followed by a failed 2-point conversion attempt, cutting U-High’s lead, 56-12.

Just as he had started the evening scoring, Deffenbaugh closed out the Pioneers’ scoring on the night with a 37 yard rushing score, capping a 6 play, 76 yard drive followed by Duley’s extra point.

“I thought it was going to be a dogfight to be honest with you,” University High head coach John Johnson said afterward. “We came out and got up by two touchdowns and I think that broke their will a little bit. We did pretty well as a team tonight. I am very proud of our kids.”

Johnson had praise for Cunningham saying, “I remember telling reporters I thought he was going to be a good quarterback and I think he showed it tonight. The line blocked well for him a lot of times, he executed our whole offense, but he studied hard on our offense and he executed.”

“This was a team win,” Johnson said, adding praise for receivers, saying. “Neil Sundaram came in and he’s been working hard in practice and it was his time tonight.”

Prior to this contest, the team had struggled internally. But after this victory, as for the team’s complete effort, Johnson said, “They pulled the rope in the same direction all night and that really made a big difference.”

Johnson said he knew nothing about Champaign Central prior to the contest, adding, “I thought we were going to have a donnybrook here, but we played them pretty well.”

“We are a young team, so my frustrations are that I like to see my players compete ‘til the end of the game,” explained Champaign Central head coach Tim Turner, adding he saw his players do that.” He added the team has a motto of “we’ll play anybody anytime anyplace,” so the change of coming here had no effect on his players.

He said he thought his troops moved the ball “pretty well, but when you have 4 or 5 turnovers, it’s going to be difficult to score.” Champaign Central had two interceptions, two fumbles, and turned the ball over on downs to U-High twice.

The Pioneers are slated to travel to Jacksonville for a Central State Eight Conference contest Friday night.