NORMAL — Randy Martz was looking for two more victories from his Lewis and Clark Community College baseball team. He and the Trailblazers were even willing to burn the midnight oil for two more victories that would put the Trailblazers back in the NJCAA Division II World Series for the first time since 1996.
But just after midnight Saturday, the Trailblazers came up short in a semifinal of the NJCAA Region 24 Tournament at the Corn Crib stadium with a 6-3 loss to Parkland College of Champaign.
“It was a long day, a late night and we just didn’t come up with it,” Martz said. “It was a tough way to end the season. If we could have found a way to win that one, then could have come back to beat Lincoln Land in the final (Sunday), we’d be back in the nationals tournament.”
Instead, the Trailblazers ended their season with the most wins since that 1996 team that finished third at the NJCAA World Series.
Lincoln Land downed Parkland 9-5 Sunday for the region championship and a berth in the NJCAA Division II World series set for May 25-June 1 in Enid, Oklahoma.
L&C finished the season 30-17 overall and 22-8 in the Mid-West Athletic Conference.
The Trailblazers found themselves needing to come out of the consolation bracket at the region tourney. After defeating Vincennes University on Thursday 10-3, they dropped an 8-5 Friday game to Danville Area College, a team that had defeated four times in the regular season.
“That (Danville) game was one we could have and definitely should have won,” Martz said. “But we made some mistakes that were not typical of our team. We made two critical (back-to-back) errors that put us under the gun.
“That was something we hadn’t done all year, but we did Friday and it cost us.
“It was a bad time to play our worst game of the year.”
Sunday afternoon, the Trailblazers defeated Illinois Central College 13-4 to advance to the consolation semi against Parkland.
The late-night game against the Cobras began about 10 p.m.
After rallying to tie Parkland in the fourth inning 3-3, L&C again trailed 4-3 in the fifth when catcher Nick Wilke, a freshman from Wentzville, Missouri, hit a ball toward the gap in right-centerfield with a pair of runners on base and two out.
But the play was stifled when the Parkland right fielder Jeremiah Lebrun dove and made a catch that amazed Martz, who’s seen his share of great plays during his years as a coach and player, including his days with the Chicago Cubs.
“It was as good a catch as I’ve ever seen in a playoff situation," Martz said.
The Cobras added runs in the sixth and the eighth innings and shut down the Trailblazers the rest of the way.
Wilke was one of many positives for the Trailblazers, who put together their best season in 22 years.
“We found a way to win our close games,” Martz said, “and we won every series this season except one.”
Consistency was critical for the Trailblazers, according to Martz, and outfielder Blake Vandiver led the way in that department.
“Vandiver was the most consistent for us over the course of the season,” Martz said. “But we had some others who were pretty close.
“(Chris) Iazetta came on in the second half of the season and Wilke was fabulous all year.”
Vandiver, a sophomore from Roxana, batted .359 with a home run, 12 doubles, two triples and 37 RBIs. He scored 34 runs.
Wilke hit .297 with a home run, a triple, seven doubles and 31 RBIs.
Tate Wargo, a sophomore shortstop from Gillespie, batted .288 with six doubles and 40 runs scored in a team-high 132 at-bats. He had six RBIs.
Ernest Plummer, a freshman outfielder form Danville, batted .297 with three doubles and 23 RBIS and Ashton Smith, a freshman from Du Quoin, batted .295 with a home run, six doubles and 18 RBIs in 105 at-bats.
“We have a solid core coming back,” Martz said. “I feel good about them. we take our biggest hit at pitching though.”
Three of the Trailblazers’ top four pitchers were sophomores and will be lost to graduation.
Brandon Hampton, a Civic Memorial High product, was 4-2, Quinton Kujawa from Mount Vernon was 6-2, Edwardsville grad Zach Seavers was 5-2, freshman Conner Pinsker from Edwardsville was 6-2 and sophomore Dyland Hansen from Fort Zumwalt South was 3-3.
“That’s the nature of the game at a JUCO,” Martz said. “It’s a two-year cycle, but we’ve got some new players coming in next fall that I’m excited about.”
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