Piatt's OT: Taylar Mercer plays softball ... and fights fires

May 3—SULLIVAN — Taylar Mercer currently leads the Sullivan softball team with a batting average in the mid-.400s.

But that's where the sports references stop for Mercer, a junior in high school who is doing bigger and better things than just what she accomplishes on the softball field.

Like fighting fires.

Sullivan High School held a career day last year and welcomed various people throughout the Moultrie County community to educate students about their jobs. One of those people was Sullivan Fire Department Chief Larry Edwards, and one of the items he talked about was the cadet program, in which anyone 16 and older can train to become a firefighter.

Growing up, Mercer found herself helping family members with medical issues on a regular basis, and she always wanted to find a way to help others in the community in a similar way. When she heard Edwards talk about the cadet program, she knew that's how she could help.

Mercer's face lights up when she gets the opportunity to tell the story of fighting her first fire. It was on the cadet program's graduation night, and she was part of the second unit called out to a barn fire, which postponed the graduation.

"I'll never forget it," Mercer said. "An Amish guy was burning some leaves and stuff, and an ash got caught away in the wind. It went on to his old barn, and it just lit up into flames. I got to hold the hose and go through the building. They taught me where all the hot spots were, how to get all the fire out and the different procedures. I also got to tear down some of the building because it was getting ready to collapse."

Her second call happened the same way, as attempt No. 2 at graduation also had to be postponed.

"I ended up going on a hazmat call where I had to fight an ammonia tank leak," Mercer said. "I had to get in my hazmat gear, and I got to hold the hose and cool down the tank as they worked on the piping."

It's a job that requires constant problem-solving. In the moment, Mercer said, there aren't many emotions. You see the fire, and you find a way to put it out. It's like a working mindset you have to snap on when duty calls, and the adrenaline rush doesn't hit until afterwards.

Part of that is because firefighters don't know the exact situation until they get there. It makes for an exciting day on the job every time.

"It's a new adventure every time," Mercer said. "I fought a fire in negative-5-degree weather. Every time the water would go through the hose and hit me, it would freeze my gear. I'd move my arms, and ice would fall off my gear because of how cold it was."

Mercer has had this firefighting gig for about a year now. She wants to go into architecture once she's done with school but plans to continue helping the fire department in a volunteer role in the future.

A look back

Curtain call for Focken

Before this baseball season began, Darryl Focken knew it would hit differently.

Because after 46 years of coaching, the longtime Cissna Park baseball coach was going to call it a coaching career.

He is moving to Arizona once the season ends.

"Time for some young blood, I guess," said Focken, who started coaching at Watseka in 1979 and has coached the Timberwolves since 1982.

Being around the game that long, two things happen.

First, baseball becomes second nature. Cissna Park junior Colson Carley said Focken "knows more about baseball than anybody I've ever met," adding that there have been plenty of times where he's correctly predicted exactly what happens in certain scenarios.

Second, you start to make an impact on those around you, and the job becomes more than just coaching.

"I really like the way he's able to coach us and be more than a coach with the things he's able to teach us on and off the field about life and baseball," Cissna Park senior Brayden Bruens said. "It really means a lot to me and the rest of the team from seniors down to freshmen. Having a relationship with him that's more than just a coach and having that deep connection with him is really special."

Last year, the players were saddened to hear the news that Focken's mother had died, and they decided to attend the visitation as a team, dressed in full baseball uniforms.

"You could tell that definitely meant a lot to him for us to show him that he's not just our coach," Bruens said. "He's a friend and a mentor, and once he does end up leaving, it's going to have an impact on the entire town."

Congrats to Athletes of the Week

D'Mario Jackson from the Danville boys' track and field team and Mallory Rosendahl from the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley softball team are the latest winners of the Athlete of the Week honors, powered by Copper Creek Contractors.

Jackson edged Unity baseball player Dane Eisenmenger for the top honor this week, with Cameron Steinbaugh from Westville baseball and Charlie Wixson from Centennial tennis also up for the accolade.

Rosendahl came out on top in a close race with Unity softball player Lindy Bates. Taylor Chattic from Watseka softball and Addison Finet from Monticello soccer were also nominated.

Read more about Jackson and Rosendahl in Monday's print edition of The News-Gazette.

A look ahead

Maroons signing day

Champaign Central will hold its final signing day of the season at 3 p.m. next Tuesday in the school's commons area.

There are currently four student-athletes scheduled to sign their letters of intent to continue their athletic careers in college. Mariclare O'Gorman will play women's tennis at Wheaton College. Jaylee Elsts will run cross-country and track at Augustana College. Ezra Bernhard will play men's tennis at Carleton College. Olivia Terry will swim at McKendree University.


Jeremiah Wenke, Monticello football

Signed his letter of intent to continue his football career at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology on April 24.

Sierrah Downey, Monticello volleyball

Signed her letter of intent to continue her volleyball career at Greenville University on April 24.

Ryker Small, Hoopeston Area baseball

Signed his letter of intent to continue his baseball career at Kankakee Community College on April 24.

Addi Seggebruch, St. Joseph-Ogden girls' basketball

Signed her letter of intent to continue her basketball career at Danville Area Community College on April 24.

Ka'Leah Bellik, Danville softball

Went 4 for 4 with three doubles and a triple in the Vikings' 3-2 win against Centennial on April 24, including the game-winning RBI double in the top of the eighth inning.

Shaylun Christenberry, Tri-County softball

Hit two home runs to highlight her four-hit, five-RBI day and lead the Titans to a 14-10 win against Blue Ridge on April 24.

Lindy Bates, Unity softball

Hit for the cycle with four RBI and pitched five innings of one-hit ball with eight strikeouts to lead the Rockets to a 19-0 win against Urbana on April 24.

Austin Cummings and Aiden Weaver, Tuscola football

Both signed their letters of intent to continue their football careers at Monmouth College on April 25.

Addison Ross, St. Joseph-Ogden girls' tennis

Signed her letter of intent to continue her tennis career at Millikin University on April 25.

Kayln Cordes, Villa Grove volleyball

Signed her letter of intent to continue her volleyball career at Danville Area Community College on April 25.

Logan Lillard and Alison Pangburn, Villa Grove softball

Both signed their letters of intent to continue their softball careers at Lake Land College on April 25.

Tynley Jackson, Monticello girls' soccer

Signed her letter of intent to continue her soccer career at Kaskaskia College on April 25.

Braxton Waller, St. Joseph-Ogden baseball

Hit two home runs with seven RBI in the Spartans' 23-0 win against Charleston on April 25.

Dane Eisenmenger, Unity baseball

Pitched a no-hitter with seven strikeouts in the Rockets' 8-0 win against Peoria Christian on April 25.

Haley Helm, Champaign Central softball

Pitched a five-inning no-hitter with eight strikeouts in the Maroons' 10-0 win against Urbana on April 25.

Tuscola's boys' 3,200-meter relay

The team of Will Foltz, Jackson Barrett, David Hornaday and Josiah Hortin ran a school-record time of 7 minutes, 56.61 seconds at last Friday's Spartan Classic in St. Joseph, also the best time in the state this year.

Jacob Long, Monticello baseball

Announced his commitment to continue his baseball career at Lincoln Land Community College on Monday.

Luke Krumwiede and Tyler Cole, Paxton-Buckley-Loda baseball

Combined for a five inning no-hitter — Krumwiede pitched four innings with six strikeouts, and Cole pitched one inning with three strikeouts — in the Panthers' 10-0 win against Rantoul on Monday.

Sam Slagel, Prairie Central softball

Hit two home runs in the Hawks' 8-2 win against Chillicothe IVC on Monday.

Cade Starrick, Mahomet-Seymour baseballAnnounced his commitment to continue his baseball career at Parkland College on Tuesday.

Samantha Christman and Chloe Sikora, Urbana girls' soccer

Christman scored five goals, and Sikora tallied one goal and six assists in the Tigers' 9-0 win against Peoria on Tuesday.

Kate Kristensen, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley softball

Hit two home runs with six RBI in the Falcons' 19-0 win against Salt Fork on Tuesday.

Voldy Makabu, Centennial boys' track and field

Cleared 6 feet, 11 inches at Tuesday's Twin City meet, improving his Charger high jump record, making him the top jumper in the state and putting him in the top 10 nationally.