Knox trotted onto Blodgett Field for their annual Senior Day a different team than in years past: only a few days after clinching the number one spot in the Midwest Conference North Division, the Prairie Fire seniors were not saying goodbye to Knox baseball just yet.
“The most amazing thing about Senior Day was knowing the season isn’t done quite yet,” senior Kyle Walenga said. “In years past, it had been a very emotional farewell for all our seniors. This year, we were just able to think back, enjoy all the good baseball we’ve played in four years, our friends, our families and the field one last time. But we also know we have bigger and better aspirations for the upcoming playoffs, and that we owe it to everyone who’s put time into this program to win.”
The day was not all smiles for Knox seniors, however. Senior Caleb Weaver, who has been playing baseball in Galesburg since fifth grade, described the experience as “bittersweet.” Weaver has carried the Prairie Fire since transferring from Carl Sandburg College after his sophomore year.
This season, Weaver has led the Prairie Fire starters in average (nearly topping .400 thus far), home runs (3), doubles (15), slugging percentage (.583) and total bases (74). While his Senior Day performance was a forgettable one (he went 0-9 with a strikeout), the rest of the Prairie Fire squad picked up one of their most valuable teammates, still making his Senior Day a memorable one.
In game one of the Senior Day doubleheader, offense was at a premium, especially for the Blueboys of Illinois College: juniors Paul Mills and Bryan Leslie and freshman Mitch Weissenhofer allowed only five IC hits en route to a shutout performance by the Prairie Fire pitching staff.
Knox scored the only runs they would need in the fourth inning on an RBI double from Walenga, who later scored on a single by freshman Blake Newberg. The Prairie Fire tacked on another run along the way to a 3-0 victory.
Game two was a battle on both sides of the ball, and after the Prairie Fire lost the lead for the first time all day in the 7th inning, the stage was set for drama.
The Blueboys took a 4-3 lead into their half of the 9th, and it appeared they would hand the Prairie Fire an even larger deficit to overcome after they got sophomore Nick Dalfonso to third base with only one out on junior Dustin Armstrong. Armstrong, however, proved steadfast and was able to get the final two hitters of the frame to ground out.
With the pressure mounting, the Prairie Fire sent the meat of their lineup to face IC’s Zack Hanlon, who shut Knox down in the 8th. After a single from junior Erik Smoy and a walk from sophomore Michael Bohnhoff, the Blueboys switched to Nick Vinscoti, who could do no better than Hanlon: he gave up a pair of quick singles to junior Michael O’Connell and Walenga, tying the game.
Vinscoti retired the next two hitters, with only he and junior Phil Tallman standing in the way of extra innings and new life for the Blueboys. Tallman already had three hits in the contest, and made it a fourth with a walk off single to win the game for the Prairie Fire in storybook fashion.
These wins meant more than two conference victories, or forcing IC from the playoffs, or even giving the seniors what they deserved on their day. These wins solidified the 2013 Prairie Fire squad as the most talented baseball team to take the field in Knox history.
The second win marked the team’s 21st victory, the most in a season in the history of the program, the best since the 1997 team won 20. The win also gave Knox its 13th conference victory, the best since the 1992 and 1980 squads won 12 apiece.
As important as records are, Walenga maintained that they do not mean everything for the Prairie Fire squad.
“That record gives you confidence,” Walenga said. “But the important thing is that it solidifies a mindset we already knew: especially these last few weeks, we’ve played every team competitively, and I have the fullest confidence we can beat any team, any time, at any place. We keep avoiding mistakes, and I can’t imagine our limits.”
In a pair of nonconference games at Millikin University, Knox had a chance to pad their record number of wins. They failed to do so in the first of two games, falling 4-0 to the Big Blue.
Freshman Jeremy Gogoel got the ball to start and gave up four runs, three of which were earned, over 4 1/3 innings.
The real issue for the Prairie Fire was not pitching but rather lack of run support. Knox managed only four hits over seven frames, allowing for Millikin’s Logan Bolton to get the complete game shutout.
Seeing no point in overexerting and injuring his starters, in game two of the doubleheader, head coach Jami Isaacson rested almost all his starters, allowing for a young core of guys to get valuable plate and mound experiences. The Prairie Fire were outhit 9-6 in the game, which ended in a 6-2 victory for Millikin.
The next stop for the Prairie Fire is against the defending MWC champions, the Green Knights of St. Norbert.
While the Green Knights could not grab the first spot in the MWC North, St. Norbert qualified for the postseason with a respectable 12-4 conference record, behind only Ripon at 14-2. After a disappointing 7-9 campaign in conference last year, the Redhawks bolted to the top of the conference, now with rights to host the MWC tournament.
“We’re not just happy to be in the tournament any more,” Walenga said. “We know what to expect; there’s no more surprises for us in Wisconsin. We just have to play within ourselves, and play our game, throwing strike one and putting the bat on the ball. We’re going to make a run, I know that.”