Balanced Rockets' lineup propels Unity baseball past STM and into regional title game

May 16—TOLONO — The outcome of Wednesday's Class 2A regional semifinal game wasn't in doubt when Dane Eisenmenger came to bat in the fourth inning.

Eisenmenger and Unity's baseball team were well on their way to a 12-1 victory against St. Thomas More on their home field, clinching a matchup with Paxton-Buckley-Loda or Westville on Saturday in the regional championship game.

But to that point, the sophomore was the only player in Unity's lineup that hadn't scored a run. That changed when he singled and later came around to score on grounder to shortstop from Brady Parr.

"We've struggled at times offensively and to see us be competitive top to bottom was encouraging," Unity coach Tom Kimball said. "We didn't give away a lot of at-bats (Wednesday), and I just felt like we were very competitive in the box."

Unity's offense delivered early and often to back up a gem from starting pitcher Tre Hoggard, who struck out four batters and allowed just three hits in 4 2/3 innings of work.

Hoggard got through the top of the first inning without allowing a hit, an act he followed by driving in Brayden Henry to ignite Unity's offense in the bottom of the inning.

"I put up a good effort on the mound. We put up a great effort in the field," Hoggard said. "Those guys are behind me. I trust them every play. And then they go up there and they put up 12 runs for me, and it's just smooth."

After Hoggard allowed two straight baserunners — Hayden Bates and Tim Oliver — in the top of second inning before striking out three batters in a row to end the threat, Unity batted around and plated six runs in the bottom half to break the game open.

The Rockets' rally began with a double from Nolan Remole, consecutive walks from Parr and Emmerson Bailey and a single from Coleton Langendorf.

All four players scored in the inning, with Langendorf, Henry, Hoggard and Eisenmenger driving in runs during the game-changing outburst

"We do a lot of batting out on the field and stuff," Bailey said. "We always do situational hitting, so when we have somebody on base, it's really routine for us."

Sixth-seeded St. Thomas More (11-20) changed pitchers twice during the second inning, with Reid Craddock coming in for starter Andrew Tay and Wil Karduck entering the game to record the final out of the second.

"Unity swung it really well," STM coach Mike Alves said. "Hats off to them, they played the way they should have. We struggled on the mound, couldn't locate pitches and they drove them."

Four more Unity runs came across during the third inning as Remole, Parr, Bailey and Langendorf crossed home plate.

The final five batters in Unity's lineup combined for five hits in nine at-bats. Oliver Rawlings — the only Unity batter that didn't record a hit — walked and scored during the second inning.

"When our heart of the order is on, it does take a lot of pressure off me," Bailey said. "I just go up there with the intent of driving them in."

STM freshman Logan Wade led off the top of the fifth inning with a ground ball to Unity shortstop Tyler Henry that resulted in an error; he scored on a wild pitch two batters later to card STM's final run of the season. The rally was short-lived, however, as Bailey shifted to the mound and struck out Cole Kemper to send the Rockets' faithful home happy.

"The seniors here meant a lot to this program," Alves said. "I think this was their 14th or 15th postseason game. They've been here, they've fought and you can tell how much the bench appreciates them. You've got freshmen crying because of these seniors."

Home-field advantage was kind to the second-seeded Rockets (21-10) in a rematch of an Illini Prairie Conference matchup that Unity won 5-2 on April 29 in Champaign.

"It feels good," Hoggard said. "Those fans, they're nice. You've got us chirping in the dugout and then you've got them rooting you on. It feels good to have them behind you and to have a good, supportive base like this."

Unity has already beaten Westville and PBL so far this season, winning a 7-6 decision against the Tigers on March 19 and a 6-2 Illini Prairie game against the host Panthers on April 8.

PBL bested Westville 8-7 on April 30; the teams will face each other at 4:30 p.m. Thursday on Unity's field with a rematch against the Rockets on the line.

"I'm really excited," Bailey said. "I think the whole team is really hyped up about it. Just like last year, we'll go out there and hopefully dominate."