NORMAL — Jared Slivka is the kind of player all of his coaches absolutely love and all of his teammates absolutely count on, but that all of their opponents absolutely hate. He’s willing to do anything it takes for their Newark team to win a game and talented enough and versatile enough to make it hurt.
With staff aces Dalton Reibel and Joe Martin, who toiled in Monday’s supersectional win and the Class 1A semifinal loss just hours before both unavailable due to the IHSA’s pitch-count rules, Norsemen coach Josh Cooper turned to his senior second baseman for the third-place game … and Slivka delivered like an ace in his own right.
The slightly-built right-hander, who had only seen 13 1/3 innings on the mound all season, went all seven innings, allowing just two runs, six hits and one walk while striking out three to pace the Norsemen to a 6-2 victory and the first state baseball trophy in the school’s lengthy and historically successful athletic past.
Leadoff man Tegan Kruser collected three of the nine NHS hits and four others had both a hit and at least one RBI to end the season with a 27-2 record on the game’s biggest stage at Illinois State University’s steamy Duffy Bass Field.
“Once we lost, I told the kids, ‘Go ahead and be mad, I wanted to win that first game and I’m mad, too, but we still have a game to play’ and the way these kids popped back up and put up two runs in the first inning, I couldn’t be more proud of them,” said Cooper. “No matter what, you put these kids in any type of game and they’re going to compete, even when it’s hard knowing you’re knocked out of contention for the championship.
“And Jared is one of the best of those. I could ask him to play any position and he’d do it. He is a gamer … And it’s a great thing to go out as a senior with your last game a win, and these guys got to do that.”
That was made possible by two runs in the first on singles by Tegan Kruser, Slivka and Reibel, plus a sacrifice fly by Martin, and by three runs in the third. After Reibel was hit by a pitch and Martin walked, Mitchell Kruser clubbed a triple to score them both, then scored himself on a single by Ethan Jeffers for a 5-0 Norseman lead.
Though Mt. Pulaski hit two deep flyballs in the second inning, one ended in a miraculous catch by left fielder Jeffers and the other on a perfect relay from Jeffers to shortstop Tegan Kruser to third baseman Reibel, Slivka (3-0) was touched hard in just one inning, the home fourth.
Four consecutive hits, one of them a two-run single by the Hilltoppers’ clean-up hitter Jackson Fricke, cut the lead to 5-2, but after that, the NHS hurler allowed just two runners to reach over the last three frames, by an error and a walk.
“Whatever my coach wants, I’ll go for it,” said the beaming Slivka, with the third-place trophy at his feet and the team’s “Club Dub” victory chain hanging around his neck. “I knew I had to. I hadn’t done a lot of pitching, but I was confident in what I could do, what my team could do hitting and on defense. All I had to do was pitch strikes. That’s all. Getting through the first three innings facing the minimum and having a 2-0 lead, I was really confident in myself.
“I suppose I surprised myself a little that I made it through all seven … but my goal was just let them hit the ball, basically, and like Coach Cooper said, I used my slow fastball and my slower fastball. That was my goal all game.”
A run-scoring triple by Lucas Pasakarnis in the sixth padded by one and the ‘Toppers, worn out by the sun, the 90-degree heat and their long, demoralizing 11-5 loss to eventual state champion Farina South Central, were finished.
Toppers freshman Landon Smith, who had only thrown 16 innings this season himself, suffered the tough loss, ending 3-1.
“We were as ready as we were going to be, but Newark kinda jumped out on us and they had the fresher legs, and that made the difference at the start,” said Mt. Pulaski coach Joe Washko. “Newark is a very good team, solid up and down the order, and Landon did exactly what we wanted him to do against them: he threw strikes, he got ahead of batters and he let our defense work for him like it has all year. He attacked their hitters and made them put the ball in play.
“But in the first couple of innings, they just found the holes and we had a couple of miscues that were uncharacteristic of us, probably because the fatigue had set in … And while (Slivka) was different (slower) than the pitcher we saw in the first game, eventually, we adjusted, just not fast enough.”