MANTENO — Coal City baseball coach Greg Wills spends his weekdays teaching English and talking ears off at the high school, but even he was left speechless after his Coalers shocked the state with a 10-9 victory at Manteno in Wednesday’s IHSA Class 2A Sectional semifinal.
“I’m at a loss for words right now,” Wills said. “And that’s hard for me.”
The Coalers pulled ahead early, fell behind in the middle of the game, and then took advantage of some timely hitting and untimely, uncharacteristic Panthers errors to compile a seven-run fifth inning before holding off a late Manteno charge.
“We had some balls we didn’t catch we should have caught, and instead of getting down, we just kept coming at them, coming at them, coming at them,” Wills said. “They did kick some balls around, and that kind of opened the door for us.”
The Coalers, who improved to 13-9 on the year and advanced to Friday’s sectional finals against Marquette, kicked off the scoring with a three-run first inning to put pressure on the Panthers early. But the home team rallied back with a run in each of the first two innings before a three-run third allowed them to take their first lead of the game at 5-3 before Jack Snyder’s two-out, two-run double in the fourth made things more comfortable at 7-3.
The next half of the inning is when Coal City regained the lead it held onto down the stretch.
Four of their runs in their seven-run fifth inning came on three Manteno errors, but the other three came from Abram Wills, who cleared all three bases with a booming single to the left-center-field fence.
Abram Wills, who was making his first start of the season at designated hitter after suffering a knee injury in the offseason, hobbled his way to first before being removed for a pinch-runner.
“[Playing this season] was a huge goal of mine from the moment I got hurt,” Abram Wills said. “I had a lot of [physical therapy], a lot of work, and my swing started to feel good, and I just made a play.”
It was after Abram Wills made his storybook return the Panthers lost their touch. After an error, a walk and a hit batter, Coalers starting pitcher Brady Best helped himself out with the second bases-clearing hit of the inning, a three-run double.
“I was 100 percent sure [of the result] when we had the bases loaded, came out rallying and cleared the bases,” Best said. “When I came back out on the mound, I knew we were gonna come out on top.”
The Panthers came back in the bottom of the sixth and threatened mightily when Luke Trepanier drove in a pair with a double and represented the tying run in scoring position. Best struck out Panthers catcher Jack Snyder before reaching his pitch-count limit, which sent sophomore Braden Reilly to the mound.
Reilly got Panthers cleanup hitter Edan Perez to pop-out to Best at first base to escape the jam. After a scoreless top of the seventh, the Panthers came to bat for their last chance.
With one out, Alex Juranich split the gap between left and center fields and made a turn toward second, but Coalers centerfielder Ashton Harvey came up with the throw of his life, a dart to Riley Ponio at second base, to get Juranich for the second out before Reilly induced a groundout to Ponio in the next at bat to end it.
“I just wanted to take the ball and get it as close to the base as I could, and luckily, it was right there,” Harvey said. “Seeing the umpire call him out was a great feeling; me and [leftfielder Aydan Murphy] jumped up and started hugging and cheering.”
The win was the Coalers’ first in three cracks at the Illinois Central Eight Conference champions, a proud achievement for coach Wills and his team as they live to fight another day.
“I don’t think a whole lot of people gave us a chance to be standing here right now,” Greg Wills said. “There were times we did not play very good baseball during the year, but we kept preaching, kept coaching, kept teaching, and the kids just kept buying in.”
Meanwhile for the Panthers, the loss ended a historic season in which they finished with a school-record 32-3 record, earning both an ICE championship and regional title along the way.
“It’s tough; as a coach, you have groups that come and go, this one being a special one,” Panthers coach Matt Beckner said. “They missed that COVID-19 year [last season], so for them to come back and put together the season they had, it’s [going to] be tough to say bye to these guys.”
Snyder, who is one of nine Panther seniors, said he hopes this year’s team is remembered for what he believes was the reason for their accomplishments.
“There’s not a single selfish guy on this team,” Snyder said. “Everyone roots for each other, and I think that’s what we should be remembered by because that’s why we had the success we had.
Harvey had a team-high three hits for the Coalers, one of them a double, to go along with a run and two RBIs. Best doubled, singled and scored twice at the plate. On the mound, he allowed nine runs (six earned) on eight hits and five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. Reilly allowed one hit in 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
Snyder went 2 for 4 with a double and three RBIs to lead Manteno. Eric Beck hit three singles, scored twice and drove in a run. Juranich went 2 for 3 with a run. Bryce Vorwald doubled and scored twice. Perez allowed nine runs (three earned) on six hits and eight strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings.
The Coalers host Marquette at 4:30 p.m. Friday in the sectional championship.