MENDOTA — Tom Keegan posted pictures of his Hall players as kids in the dugout, wanting them to come and play just like they were in those little faces just starting out playing baseball a decade ago.
The Red Devils played carefree with no worries, cracking 13 hits, five for extra bases, as they routed rival Princeton 14-3 in five innings in Wednesday’s regional semifinals at Mendota High School.
"We just wanted to remind them when they take the field like they were 8 years old and play like they did when they were young," Keegan said.
No one played more free and easy than junior catcher Brant Vanaman. He had a big day at the plate, a perfect one in fact with a 4-4 effort, including a triple, three-run home run and six RBIs.
“I guess we’re just using that (the pictures) as a mindset to just go out there and play and not think too much," Vanaman said. "I was just seeing the fastball right away, so I was just sitting on that pitch. I guess, that’s what I got."
The only thing that delayed the Red Devils Express was Mother Nature. The game was halted with one out in the top of the fifth inning when a clap of thunder quickly led the umpires to bring the players off the field for a weather delay.
After a 32-minute delay, Hall reliever Jimmy DeAngelo induced Tiger catcher Conner Alter on a 6-4-3 double play to end the game. The delay proved to be most beneficial to the Red Devils as starting pitcher Ty Rybarczyk departed with 59 pitches at the time of the delay, and thus remains eligible to pitch in Saturday’s finals. With another pitch, he would not have.
"It worked out pretty well," Keegan said, noting besides saving Rybarczyk, it was nice to get DeAngelo a feel for the mound.
Despite the big lumber coming out of the Hall dugout, it was the Tigers (13-13) who came out swinging.
Leadoff man Josh Reinhardt socked the second pitch he saw from Rybarczyk out of the park, hugging the left-field foul pole, landing at his dad's feet. John Reinhardt retrieved the ball and handed to his son for a souvenir. It was the Tigers' first homer of the season, coming in its last game.
Conner Dickens added a two-out, two-run double to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead, as Princeton scored all three of its runs during the game’s first frame.
Hall (26-5) got even quickly, scoring often and early.
The Red Devils tied the game in the home half of the first on Chance Resetich’s one-out, two-run, single to right field.
Hall added four runs in the second on an RBI single by Vanaman, an RBI triple by Cam McDonald and a two-run homer by Jimmy DeAngelo to take the lead for good at 7-3.
Vanaman smoked a two-run triple to right center and McDonald followed with another 3-bagger to make it 10-3.
"I saw the ball in the gap, and I was thinking three," Vanaman said.
Vanaman blasted a deep, three-run round-tripper, well over the left-field fence to make it 14-3 after four. Perhaps, it was to no surprise that rain came shortly after.
"Holy cow. I told him maybe next time you can get it a little bit more of it. Just missed it," Keegan said, tonque in cheek. "He's been consistent all year. Just in a groove."
Keegan took notice Hall's final 11 runs all came after two outs in the second, third and fourth innings.
"We talked about being confident with two outs and that they can be the guy to get runs across and they did it," Keegan said.
Tiger coach Wick Warren praised his team for playing baseball the “the way it oughta be played” this season. They just met their match Thursday.
“My young team battled, but just couldn’t out it back together,” Warren said. “Lets give Hall all the credit in the world. They are a very good team. They hit the ball, play great defense. Just takes the wind out of your sails when that kind of stuff happens. The hitting by Vanaman was awesome, too. He’s a very good hitter.
“Really appreciate the support from the community and student body. Monday was awesome with the home game and a lot of them came out tonight to sit through the wind storm and all that stuff and it’s just great to see."
Mendota and Erie/Prophetstown square off Thursday for the right to face Hall in Saturday's title game. Keegan said it will be a stiff challenge whoever it proves to be.
"They both have good arms, not just one good arm, but multiple good arms," he said. "Anxious to get up here (Thursday) to see how that plays out. With any luck, it goes about 20 innings, and they throw about 500 pitches."
The fact that EP beat Hall late for its only loss in TRAC East play shouldn't matter for revenge, Keegan said.
"If we need that to get yoked up, then we don't really have a chance for a regional championship," Keegan said. "Back in the spot where we want to be."
Gametime Saturday is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the MHS diamond. Hall was upset in last year's regional finals to St. Bede 3-2
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