PRINCETON – When the postseason started, it is unlikely many following the Erie-Prophetstown baseball team thought the Panthers would win the regional championship.
Three upset wins later, the Panthers have everyone in red and black believing.
The No. 8-seeded Panthers walked off with the Class 2A Princeton Regional championship with a 5-2 win Monday over No. 4 Bureau Valley on Monday.
The Panthers (11-13) scored three runs on Storm throwing errors, one run on a wild pitch, and another when the Storm were slow to cover first base.
Austin Cole took care of the rest, pitching a seven-hit, complete-game victory.
Even Cole and E-P coach Brad Tichler had their doubts.
“It was amazing. I didn’t think we were going to win, to be honest,” Cole said. “Started out the season not very good. Then we got here. We had three big upsets, really. Wasn’t ready for it, but we did it. It’s history. Underdog story.”
“I’m just proud of those guys,” Tichler said. “If you would have told me on [May 16] when we were playing Princeton, who beat us, 13-3, and then Hall, who beat us, 11-1, and then BV, who beat us, 14-10, I’d never guess that we’d come out of the regional on top.
“We were 0-5 to start the year. At one point, we were 3-9, so I mean we’re only 11-13, but we have been playing better baseball, taking advantage of things. I know they made a few mistakes here and there, but we were able to get some key runs.”
Erie-Prophetstown completes their improbable ride with some regional hardware at Princeton Monday. After covering all 3 upset wins, coach Tichler asked me to go to sectional with them @EPPantherFB pic.twitter.com/oH2LwEnUcV
Tichler said sophomore second baseman Reece Duncan has been instrumental in the Panthers’ turnaround from an 0-5 start. He made a key play when he scooped a grounder by BV’s Bryson Smith that appeared to be on its way through the infield and turned it into an out at first on a nice stretch by first baseman Connor Sibley to strand two Storm runners.
“He’s what helped turn it around,” Tichler said. “He came up [from the fresh-soph] after that five-game stretch where he solidified that defense. ... He made a heck of a play. Connor made a great stretch.”
E-P took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning before the Storm made a game of it, scoring two runs on three hits.
Brock Foster drew a one-out walk, and Sam Rouse singled to put two runners in scoring position, with Foster sliding under the tag at third. Logan Johnson put the Storm on the board with a single to left to plate Foster, and Smith followed with a bad-hop single that eluded first baseman Sibley to make it 3-2.
The Panthers got those runs right back in the top of the seventh when Sibley and Kolby Franks singled. Sibley stole third and scored as catcher Sam Wright’s throw sailed past third baseman Rouse. A replay of that play saw Franks steal third and score on another errant throw to make it 5-2.
“They put the ball in play. We made a bunch of plays, and there were a few that we didn’t. Unfortunately, on a day like this, those are the ones that cost us,” BV coach Ryan Schisler said. “That part’s tough, but we know they are a good squad, and they’re hot.
“We were squaring some balls. They were sticking their nose in there, knocking some balls down and making some throws. Their first baseman had some crazy picks and stretches. They just had a day that everything worked out for them. They’re riding a hot streak. And that’s how it goes. I tip my hat to them.”
Cole entered the seventh inning with 104 pitches with only 11 left on his available pitch count. He was able to go the distance, helped by retiring the first two batters, Justin Kopp and Carter Salisbury, on the first pitches.
“I was playing with my nerves, and I was hoping I could finish the game. Threw one pitch to the first kid, one pitch to the second kid, and I knew I had it from there,” Cole said.
Cole, who struck out six, kept it all in the family by pitching the Panthers to the regional championship. His brother, Kenneth, pitched E-P to back-to-back championships in 2013-14.
Schisler praised BV starter Seth Spratt for keeping the Storm in the game. He allowed six hits with only one earned run. He fanned six, walked one and hit one batter.
“He’s a guy that we felt got better all year, and felt like a guy who was ready for this, and he absolutely was,” he said. “He did everything we asked him to do. Unfortunately, Cole was just a little bit better.”
Mason Misfeldt led off the game for E-P with a single and took second on Sibley’s groundout. Another grounder to Rouse at third ended up with a high throw across the diamond to allow Misfeldt to score.
E-P scored two runs in the fifth. Sibley and Franks both singled and pulled off a double-steal. A wild pitch by Spratt sent Sibley home, and Duncan beat out a slow roller to the right side when the Storm were slow to cover first to make it 3-0.
The Cinderella Panthers will be strapping on their glass slippers again for the sectional semifinals at Knoxville against Brimfield (26-2), scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday.
“They look pretty tough stat-wise. I’ve never seen them play,” Cole said. “They’re 26-2, which is quite the record for high school. But the way we’re playing right now, I think we can do it.”
Schisler said he was happy for Tichler, a fellow Morrison alum, who coached the Storm coach when he played for the Morrison fresh-soph team.
“I’m happy for him, happy for them and their program,” he said. “They’ve worked hard at it. He does things the right way. We wished it was us, but if was going to be someone else, glad to have Brad enjoy that.”