Panthers relish baseball state trophy despite difficult weekend | Sports

PEORIA — There wasn’t too much more Wayne Meyer or his LeRoy baseball athletes could say about their play across two Class 1A state tournament games.

The Panthers’ 15-2 semifinal defeat against North Clay on Friday as well as Saturday’s 12-0 loss to Ottawa Marquette in the third-place game at Dozer Park — each a five-inning affair — left plenty to be desired for Meyer’s bunch.

Yet there was one tangible thing LeRoy’s contingent could hang its hat on despite a difficult two-day stretch.

“It’s definitely one of those things where the trophy case will have this fourth-place trophy,” 27th-year Panthers coach Meyer said. “They won’t know the score years from now. They’ll just know we had a heck of a baseball team. It stings right in the moment, but as time goes by that will dull and you’re just proud of what you did.”

LeRoy (24-11) wasn’t able to celebrate a game victory under the bright sunshine Saturday as the Panthers were serenaded with cheers and applause while receiving the 1A fourth-place hardware.

And, sure, there were plenty of tears and long faces.

But along with that sadness was a wave of pride within a squad led by eight seniors.

“I’ll hopefully look back on it and just think, ‘We got to this point,’ and hopefully not really think about what happened these past two days,” senior Porter Conn said. “The journey, for sure, is what I’ll remember when I look at the trophy.”

Of course, the Panthers were also disappointed they couldn’t show exactly what brought them to the state stage. They fell behind early against both North Clay and Ottawa Marquette (32-4) and saw a small deficit quickly balloon each time.

“We’ve been playing really good. This weekend, we didn’t play how we know we can,” senior Calvin Crawford said. “It sucks, but it’s just a lot of fun being here.”

Similar issues plagued LeRoy on Saturday versus the Crusaders as the ones that felled the Panthers one day prior against the Cardinals.

Ottawa Marquette struck the ball well, lashing nine hits on the day. But LeRoy’s pitching trio of senior Blake Roundtree, Crawford and junior Gabriel McKinney also combined to issue three walks and six hit-by-pitches. The Panthers’ defense tacked on four errors before their offense recorded a single hit.

“We weren’t real sharp in any phase,” Meyer said. “We played a couple really good teams, and I thought we were a little timid. We didn’t necessarily play our ball, which is not necessarily what you want. But it doesn’t take away anything from what we’ve done.”

Ottawa Marquette was led offensively by sophomore Charlie Mullen, who went 3 for 3 with three RBI. Freshman Sam Miter contributed two singles and two RBI, while junior Logan Nelson performed the oddly impressive feat of being hit by three pitches across four plate appearances.

Both Meyer and Crusaders coach Todd Hopkins noted after the game that they played college baseball together, adding an extra layer to the third-place bout.

That may have partially compelled Hopkins to storm from the third-base coach’s box to his dugout during a Panthers third-inning pitching change. Hopkins appeared to scold a few members of his celebrating bench with the game getting out of hand.

“(Meyer) always has great pitchers. We knew we were going to see one or two,” Hopkins said. “We’d always run into them in the sectional. In ’19, when we won (state), we played them — I think it was a 1-0 game — in the sectional semi. They always play good baseball. They beat us one year in a sectional final.

“So we’re familiar with each other. I respect his program and everything he’s done. We knew it was going to be a tough task. We were just able to get things rolling.”

After Ottawa Marquette brought home its final three runs on a fifth-inning play — a single from junior Tommy Durdan paired with a multi-base fielding error — Meyer opted to lift the majority of his seniors from the game.

They received a rousing ovation from Panthers rooters in attendance. Crawford showed evident emotion as he embraced Meyer in front of the dugout before exiting from his last high school contest.

“Really important,” Crawford said of the gesture. “We’ve been playing together our whole lives, and just to make it to this moment meant so much for our group.”

“I wanted to get everyone the opportunity to say they could play,” Meyer added. “In the end, it is a senior salute with everything they’ve accomplished.”

The bevy of substitutions also allowed some of LeRoy’s less-heralded players to provide a couple feel-good moments at the end of the season.

With one out in the bottom of the fifth and the Panthers staring down the barrel of a no-hitter from Crusaders junior pitcher Taylor Waldron, freshman Andrew Fleming smacked a clean single back up the middle.

Two batters later, junior Cylas Marcum roped a single of his own that landed safely in the outfield grass.

“That’s baseball, isn’t it?” Meyer said with a smile. “Kind of pressing and struggling, and a freshman comes up and a junior comes up who comes off the bench, gets a great hit. That was good to see.”

Twelve of the players LeRoy rostered at state are slated to return for the 2023 season.

Who knows what those Panthers — starters or not — might have gained from the 2022 club’s run to a state tournament berth.

That’s a topic for Meyer and his staff to focus upon down the road.

For now, LeRoy will celebrate the new feeling of being a baseball state medalist.

“We weren’t expecting to get here,” Meyer said. “You get here, and you kind of want it all. … The experience we had, we’re always going to look back with fond memories here, regardless of what happened the last two days.”

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