ROCK FALLS – The Sterling baseball team spent an entire regular season trying to distance itself from Rochelle.
It needed just one inning of the postseason to finally do so.
The Golden Warriors scored six runs in the bottom of the first, blasting four home runs, and Nolan Sullivan fired a five-inning complete game as Sterling advanced to the championship round of the Class 3A Rock Falls Regional with a 13-2 semifinal victory Wednesday over the NIB-12 rival Hubs.
”We’re determined. The mindset in practice has changed now that we’re in the postseason,” said Sterling senior Trey Morse, who had two of those homers, including a game-ending one in the bottom of the fifth that sailed far over the left-field wall and smacked halfway up the side of the tall backstop of the adjacent softball diamond at the Rock Falls High School athletic fields.
The Warriors tied the program record for wins in a season with their 22nd, matching last year’s squad and the 1975 team.
On the one hand, the power displayed by Morse, Sterling’s all-time leader in hits, isn’t all that surprising; but on the other hand, the Warriors managed just two home runs as a team for the entire regular season, a number that was matched just three hitters into the postseason.
Reilly Hay led off the game with a wall-scraper down the right-field line, and Morse blasted his first of the game just two batters later.
The lopsided score juxtaposed a regular-season war of attrition between the two teams, which split the NIB-12 West championship. The Warriors were able to win two of their three matchups with the Hubs this year, but Wednesday’s awakening of the bats ensured that Sterling’s postseason battle with Rochelle wasn’t nearly as competitive as its regular-season struggle with the Hubs.
Sterling manager Nick Pepper attributed the increased display of power partly to the mostly unusual conditions of the season thus far.
“It’s been kind of a weird year with it being so cold, and it seems like in a lot of our games, the wind’s been blowing in,” he said. “This was one of the first times where it was actually a good day for hitting home runs.”
Tyler Wilman apparently agreed, belting a screamer that hooked around the left-field foul pole to give his team a 9-1 edge in the fourth and set the stage for Morse’s shot to give the game the necessary 10-run gap to end things early in the fifth.
While the power might seem to have come from out of the blue, Morse says his team has always been capable of dangerous things at the plate.
“We’ve been doing it all year, but we just haven’t been getting them over the fence,” Morse said. ”The ball carried today.”
While the power surge may have been a surprise, the performance of Sullivan certainly was par for the course.
Sullivan (5-1) struck out eight, walked none, and allowed just four hits in a performance that was pretty typical of the ones the senior has put forth this year.
“My main goal was just keep their batters off-balance,” Sullivan said. “I’ve had better days, but for the most part today, I had control of my curveball and control of my fastball, and if I have both of those going, I’m usually going to pitch well.”