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'This win is big for us'

Mar. 15—URBANA — Emotions ran high on Thursday afternoon as the Urbana baseball team opened its season with a 5-3 win against Heritage at Prairie Park.

Like when the Tigers' bench was issued a warning for language after senior catcher Jaydon Riggs tied the game 1-1 with a two-out solo home run over the left-center field fence in the bottom of the first inning.

Riggs was a freshman 1,043 days ago when Urbana played its last varsity baseball game before scaling back to a junior varsity schedule in 2022 and 2023.

"That was the last few years, this past offseason, all the hard work, late nights, early mornings," Riggs said. "All that came out a little bit. I need to control that next time."

Riggs' home run — which helped the Tigers overcome a leadoff triple from Zaien Smith a half-inning prior — was Urbana's first varsity run since the Tigers fell to Centennial in an 18-3 Class 3A regional semifinal loss on June 4, 2021.

It's something the Tigers (1-0) have thought plenty about during the past two seasons.

"This year there's a lot more excitement around it," Urbana junior Gabe Daniels said.

"There's a lot more support for it," Daniels continued. "Last year, we were kind of the laughingstock of the school versus this year. Now that Jaydon and I have kind of gotten our names out there a little bit more, there's less of a bad attitude towards it."

Heritage (0-2) took its second lead of the game in the top of the second inning when Destin Nickle and Jaden White drew walks to lead off the frame, allowing Smith to drive in Nickle with a one-out single. A pair of strikeouts from Urbana starter Dylan Pettit followed to help the Tigers dance out of trouble.

"It starts with the pitchers," Urbana assistant coach Andre Montgomery said. "It's how they can control and compose themselves. Dylan did a great job and Gabe did a great job of backing us up, and when we weren't getting strikes, we didn't make too many errors in the field."

In the bottom of the second inning, a dropped third strike eluded White behind the plate and allowed Urbana's Jaiden Anindo to advance to second base with one out.

Pettit singled and both came around to score in the inning, aided by a double from Nico Wiemelt. Urbana never trailed again on a cloudy afternoon.

"Our guys rally behind the pitchers," Montgomery said. "They kept talking to them. They kept encouraging them. I think it was an all-out effort with confidence and encouraging each other."

Daniels singled and scored during the third inning and Wiemelt singled and scored in the fourth to ensure the Tigers' edge.

Daniels struck out three batters and surrendered a run during the final two innings after Pettit struck out six and yielded four walks in three innings of work.

"I feel like I did better than I thought I would have," Daniels said. "I was able to keep my thoughts calmer. I was able to control the game. I wish I could have commanded a little better on the mound because my breaking balls weren't there. So it was just a fastball and curveball."

The last three outs didn't come easily for Daniels, who surrendered a single to Hayden Davis before walking Miller and Klayton Junglas to load the bases.

A balk scored Davis before Daniels recovered and struck out Nickle and White as the sky grew too dark to continue without lights at Prairie Park.

"I just got kind of mad, then I just started going from there," Daniels said. "I don't know, but I feel like when I'm angry, I pitch better."

Urbana's defense helped the winning cause with just one error.

Montgomery and fellow assistant Lawrence Davis — leading the Tigers in the absence of head coach Brandon McFarland — emphasized mental toughness throughout the game, repeatedly telling the Tigers to play without emotion after defensive mistakes or unsuccessful at-bats.

"We played really well defensively and that's going to be key for us to get victories this season," Davis said. "We might not have the strongest arms, but we've got the strongest heart and a nice strong work ethic."

The Hawks had some positive takeaways, too, after out-hitting the Tigers 7-6 and boasting a young core with just one senior after a 3-19 campaign in 2023.

"I think that we lacked the key hit this game," Heritage coach Andy Charles said. "Not in one particular place but in several places. I thought we did a good job getting runners on base and running the bases fairly smart, but just that one hit short and that comes with time."

Urbana's season-opening victory came two days after a 9-0 JV triumph against Paxton-Buckley-Loda, marking the second encouraging signal for the rebuilding program in the first week of the season.

A challenging schedule ahead will have the Tigers host reigning regional champions St. Thomas More and Mahomet-Seymour on March 20 and 23 before traveling to Rantoul on March 25 and 27.

"This win is big for us," Davis said. "It just really showed that we can compete with these guys. If we come here and work hard in practice, be consistent and get more patient, a little calmer out there, we can maybe shock some people in the Big 12 and win some games that technically we're supposed to lose."