'We take pride in that': Why Mid-Illini Conference baseball is among the state's best

Wes Huett
Journal Star

Washington this week continued the Mid-Illini Conference's streak of statewide baseball success.

The Panthers (24-6) are the eighth consecutive Mid-Illini program to make at least the Class 3A supersectionals — and will be the fourth to earn a state trophy since 2013.

"I've said this for years," Washington baseball coach Kyle Wisher said, "but south of I-80 this is as tough a conference you can find, year in and year out."

All the scores:2021 IHSA baseball state tournament schedule, scores and pairings

After this week, half of the league's eight schools will have a baseball state trophy earned since 2013: Morton won a title in 2018. Limestone was third in 2016. Metamora was third in 2014.

Morton (2017) and Metamora (2013, 2015) have additional trips to the supersectionals in this superlative span. Dunlap (2019) has one, as well. There was no baseball season in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Longtime Morton coach Jesse Crawford says every week in M-I play provides schools chances to match up against top-flight pitching in a playoff atmosphere. That gets the league battle-tested when it hits postseason play.

Once in the playoffs, Washington had to beat league rivals Metamora, East Peoria and Morton to escape with a sectional championship.

"I am very proud of this league, for sure," Crawford said. "(This streak) is a culmination of central Illinois' baseball rich tradition with guys like Jim Thome and Joe Girardi ... and now we have a new wave of guys playing Division I or in the minors.

"We take pride in that."

Morton head coach Jesse Crawford talks to the Potters after Morton's 3-1 win over Richwoods in the regional title game at Richwoods High School on Monday, June 7, 2021.

Crawford also points to a strong youth baseball contingent in central Illinois. He coaches Morton's junior high team, and Wisher keeps track of the multiple middle schools that feed into Washington. Many of the league's schools have baseball success stretching well before the current string.

Now, Washington aims to improve on the M-I's success when it takes the field Thursday at Wintrust Field in Schaumburg. They earned that spot Monday, when it scored seven unanswered runs in a 7-2 win over Geneseo in a Class 3A supersectional.

It's Washington's first time at state since taking third in 2007. The Panthers (24-6) face Crystal Lake Prairie Ridge (18-13) at 10 a.m. The trophy games are scheduled at 4 p.m. for third place and 7 p.m. for the title.

"You look at their team and their stats," Crawford said, "they have the makings of a team that can win the whole thing."

Potters pride:How a young Morton baseball team got back to its winning ways

Gus Lucas tied the game at 2-2 in the second with a two-run homer to right field. Easton Harris hit an RBI single to give the Panthers a 3-2  lead the next frame.

After adding another run in the fifth, Washington — which got nine hits from seven players — ballooned its lead to five runs in the seventh inning off the bat of Josh Heyder. The senior hit a 2-2 pitch to center field, plating Jack Limas (3-for-3) and Harris.

Senior Josh Heyder celebrates after hitting a home run in the top of the seventh during Washington's 7-2  win over Geneseo in the Class 3A Geneseo Super Sectional at Richmond Hill Park on Monday, June 14, 2021.

Harris ran his pitching record to 7-0 by scattering six hits and striking out five. He threw 115 pitches and gave up two runs in the bottom of the first.

"Washington started the season at the top of the league, and it's hard to take shots and stay there like they have," Crawford said. "No better team to represent our area than them. They have the best pitching staff and two of the best position players. ... It's neat for them to be right there playing for a state championship."

Wes Huett is Journal Star sports editor. Email him at whuett@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesHuett. Adam Duvall contributed to this story.