Written by Joseph Hubbs. Media by Logan Nelson.
When the Panthers finished up the regular season with five wins in a row, all of their momentum looked as if it would surge them to the final round of the conference tournament, and that’s exactly what happened. On Saturday the Panthers matched up against the one seed, Webster Gorloks for the championship round, but could not quite juice out a victory, claiming second place in the SLIAC Tournament in Highland, Ill.
The Panthers began the tournament in fine fashion on Thursday as they battled the higher seeded Spalding Golden Eagles. Because of an incident earlier in the season in which Spalding’s catcher shoved Tim Osborne in the back after a single, there was a little tension heading into the first game. Tyler Mitchell started the game on the mound for the Panthers on a windy afternoon ball game. Mitchell struggled battling the elements in the first inning, as the wind carried the ball for two Spalding homeruns by Matt West and Korie Vire, to give Spalding an early 4-0 lead. The early deficit did not bother the Panthers however. “We’ve had so many comeback wins this season, so it didn’t faze us.” Center fielder Tim Osborne said. With runners at second and third, Spalding threatened to add to the lead, but Mitchell dug deep and froze Spalding Center fielder, Ryan Selent, striking him out looking with a fastball that painted the outside of the plate. The strikeout put Mitchell in a groove as he coasted through five innings, only allowing one more earned run on another homer by Vire in the third inning. On offense, the Panthers got off to a slow start, unable to hit the hard slider of Ryan Mosby, but in the second time around the order the Panthers found their timing, and Osborne led off the third inning with a double that went under the wall. Trevor Montgomery followed with another double to drive in Osborne, and Shane Olmstead would then bring in Montgomery with a single to cut the lead in half. The defining moment came in the top of the seventh inning. Down 8-6, the Dathan Berning started the inning off for the Panthers with a single, advancing to second on an error. Jared Souhrada would bring him in, reaching on an error, and then with one runner on base, Osborne powered a line drive over the right field wall for a two run homer to give the Panthers a 9-8 lead. “Tim’s bat is a game changer. It definitely helped change the momentum, helping us grab a late lead like that.” Shortstop, Dalton McFarland said. “I just tried to hit the ball as hard as I can.” Osborne added. In the last couple of innings, the Panthers tallied up runs with an RBI double from Berning, an RBI triple by Jered Storment, and they scored three runs off of wild pitches. Greenville’s bats and the loss of control by Spalding pitchers propelled the Panthers to a 14-9 victory in game one of the tournament.
On Friday the Panthers had to face Webster, and were defeated for their first loss of the double elimination tournament. Osborne, swinging the hot bat, helped get the Panthers off to a good start with a two-run homer in the top of the first. However, Webster fought back with two homeruns by Ryan Hall and Joe Winckel, going up 3-2 after one inning. For a couple of frames the game had every making of a pitcher’s duel between Panthers’ starter Derek Reckmann and Webster‘s Chris Jansen, but a big fourth inning would knock Reckmann out of the game and prove to be the fall of the Panthers. Reckmann, who struck out five in the first three innings, started the off the fourth inning by hitting three batters in a row to load up the bases. He got ahead of the hitters, but when he tried to go inside the curveballs didn’t break back in, and the inning got away. All three runners would come around to score in a five run inning by Webster. Greenville could not get another hit in the remainder of the game, Webster’s Jansen, Matt Goro, and Jason Gray holding them to only three hits. “We just wanted to hit homeruns in that game.” Osborne said, “We wanted the big hit every time without taking the little steps.”
“Webster’s got really good pitching, and we didn’t have a good approach.” McFarland said. Already owning a solid cushion Webster tacked on two more runs in the seventh for a 10-2 win over the Panthers.
The loss to Webster placed the Panthers in the loser’s bracket, but facing Spalding, who they had already beaten in the first round, the Panthers were confident that they could fight their way to the tournament championship. Once again, the Panthers started the game with a couple of runs, taking advantage of Spalding errors and control issues. Montgomery brought in a run on an RBI double, and later came around to score on an error by Spalding shortstop Derek Ferch. The Panthers took the 2-0 lead into the third inning, when Ferch made up for his error with an RBI single. The run would be the only one allowed by Panthers starting pitcher, junior, Tyler Pilcher, who dominated Spalding with 12 strikeouts and only allowed five hits. “He was dominant, they couldn’t touch him.” Osborne said of Pilcher’s performance. “He kept getting ahead of hitters and he was locating several off-speed pitches for strikes.” McFarland added. Until the seventh inning the game remained a close 2-1 contest in the Panthers favor. Javier Guerra, who had also been tough all game, striking out 10 Panthers hitters, finally came undone in the seventh, allowing back to back singles to Berning and Cernek. Osborne then continued his tear by bringing both players in with a two-run double. After a three up three down seventh inning by Pilcher, the Panthers added one more run in the eighth with an RBI single by Berning to go up 5-1. Spalding threatened in the bottom of the eight, loading up the bases with two hit batsmen and one base on balls. In the elimination game, Coach Carlson took no chances and wen with the closer, Nick Bifano. Bifano answered the call, and struck out two hitters with the bases loaded, ending Spalding’s chance for a comeback. In the ninth, Osborne added one more run to the Panthers lead with a sacrifice fly to plate Cernek, and Bifano pitched a scoreless ninth to complete the two inning save. The 6-1 win put the Panthers into the last round to contend for the SLIAC tournament championship.
To claim the title the Panthers knew they would have to face none other than the Webster Gorloks, and they would have had to beat them twice on Saturday to take first place. Having lost all three previous matchups to the Gorloks, the Panthers knew it would not be an easy task. This time the Panthers were able to score a few more runs, but again, the big inning killed Greenville, leading to a 12-4 loss. Jeff Kammer led off the bottom of the second inning with a solo homerun to spawn a five hit, six run inning for Webster. The Gorloks added three more runs in the third to go up 10 runs before the Panthers even got on the board. To avoid the 10 run rule in seven innings, senior Hunter Bryan took advantage of a pinch hit opportunity in the top of the fifth and annihilated a ball over the left field wall for a solo homerun. Panthers’ pitchers Jason Collingwood and Michael Wittmer then quieted Webster’s offense over four scoreless innings, giving Greenville a chance to inch their way back into the elimination game. Berning contributed an RBI in the top of the seventh with a sacrifice fly to bring in Dalton McFarland. Down 10-2 in the top of the eighth, the Panthers entered desperation mode and the first three hitters all reached base, including an RBI single by Jared Storment. Unfortunately Webster’s reliever Mitch Stefani got Whitworth to hit into a double play that would score Montgomery, but clear the bases. McFarland tried to start the rally back up again with a single. Following the single, Dylan Bone hit a double to left center, and McFarland was able to round every base and come around to score. However, on the play McFarland appeared to stumble around third base and Webster appealed to the umpire that he did not touch the bag, and he was ruled out, erasing the Panthers fifth run. “I reached out with my left foot, which was in front, and I missed the bag completely. When I was going around I realized I missed the bag, and dragged my back foot across the top of it.” McFarland said of the play, “I missed the bag so clearly with my front foot, so that’s what everyone saw, and in that situation I need to make it [clearer.]” A Panthers team that made a habit of comeback wins all season saw their momentum die with the mishap on the bases. Webster plated two more runs in the bottom of the eighth and held the Panthers hitless in the ninth to win the game 12-4 and take the tournament championship. “What’s disappointing is that we knew we could beat Webster, and we just didn’t play to our potential,” McFarland said, “but we were projected to be fifth, and we finished second in the conference tournament, so overall it was a good season.”
Although the Panthers feel they could have taken first, second place is indicative of a tremendous improvement from a year ago. A season that started off a little slowly with seven straight losses on the spring break trip to Florida, the Panthers built off of the experience and put all of their tools together during conference play. The Panthers finished the season with a 24-20 record, and a solid 19-8 mark in the SLIAC. Seven seniors will depart from the Panthers. “It was sadder that it was our last game with our seniors, not that we lost to Webster.” Osborne said. The seniors will not just leave a hole in the leadoff spot that Cernek occupied this season and several spots on the mound, but their leadership will be the biggest void for the Panthers to fill. “Cernek was by far our most vocal leader. He got everybody going.” McFarland said. Statistically however, look for the Panthers to take off from where they left off, as the power bat of Tim Osborne, who led the conference in homeruns and RBI’s, returns, along with several other Panthers hitters who had breakout seasons at the plate. Panthers’ catcher, Trevor Montgomery contributed five homeruns and 30 RBI’s as well as hitting a team high .388 batting average. First baseman Jared Storment also hit well for the Panthers this season with eight homeruns and 34 RBI’s. The Panthers will also bring back Dathan Berning, utility infielder who brought in 23 runs on the season, as well as Shane Olmstead who hit two homeruns and 11 RBI’s. As for pitching, the Panthers have solid options out of the bullpen next year, with Bifano who lead the team with a 1.51 ERA and 12 saves, along with Jason Collingwood who posted a 3.20 ERA and struck out 16 batters on the season. Pilcher, who led the team with five wins, posting a 3.58 ERA, will return with C.J. Opp as the Panthers top starting pitchers. Osborne stated that the team still looks good going into next season, but it will be interesting to see who steps in and leads the team in intensity and morale in the absence of the senior. In 2015, the Panthers will still have a solid team, so look for another appearance in the SLIAC tournament and possibly another trip to the championship round.
Continue scrolling for a few pictures. Photos by Logan Nelson