RANTOUL — Chad Vermillion almost didn’t take off.
With the scored tied at 5 and Rantoul baseball teammate John Frerichs facing an 0-2 count with two outs in the eighth inning of a Class 3A Champaign Central Regional game, Vermillion stood at third base as part of a bases-loaded opportunity.
When Chargers pitcher Ben Hannauer’s inside pitch banged off the glove of the Centennial catcher and rolled to the backstop, Vermillion hesitated.
"I thought it hit John for a second. With his body language, I was thinking the ball just hit him," Vermillion said. "And then coach started yelling, and I just ran in there as fast as I could."
After the initial hesitation, the Eagles junior sprinted home for the game-winning run in a 6-5 victory that advanced No. 8 seed Rantoul (16-12) to a 4:30 p.m. semifinal showdown Wednesday with No. 1 Mt. Zion (24-5).
"I had to get in there as fast as I could," Vermillion said. "(Afterward) everybody was like, ‘What were you thinking?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t even know.’"
"I tell the guys, ‘If I have to tell you to run on a passed ball, it’s probably going to be too late,’" Rantoul coach Jon Donovan said. "I knew it was a passed ball, and I’m waiting like, ‘He’s not going.’ And then I screamed at him, ‘Go!’ So he finally took off. Luckily, I didn’t kick him in the rear end because it would’ve been interference and an automatic out."
But all’s well that ends well for the Eagles, and a crucial factor in their victory came down to the game’s biggest hit — a single off the bat of sophomore Nolan Riddle in the seventh inning.
Trailing 5-4, Eagles senior Garet Kinnett was hit in the arm on the first pitch of the inning before being moved over on a bunt from leadoff hitter Nolan Roseman. Riddle then stepped up and cracked the game-tying hit to center field on the first pitch he saw to knot up the score.
"Nolan Riddle, as a sophomore, may have gotten caught up in the moment," Donovan said. "I told the guys before the game that Centennial’s going to be loud. Not obnoxiously loud. They don’t talk to the other team. They’re just loud for each other. Sometimes it’s a distraction, and I could tell he was nervous in his first couple at-bats. He was swinging at every pitch. I told him, ‘Just chill out. You’re a sophomore. If you do anything positive in an at-bat it’s a plus for us.’"
Colin Klein’s solo home run in the second inning helped give the No. 9 seed Chargers a 2-0 lead before Frerichs’ two-RBI double tied it at 2 in the third.
Hunter Hoffman’s sacrifice fly and Kinnett’s RBI double in the fourth gave the Eagles a 4-2 lead. In the fifth, Dayton Coleman plated a run for Centennial, and in the sixth, Evan Jordan pushed two more runs across with a shallow fly ball that dropped just in front of diving center fielder Hayden Cargo.
Also in the sixth, Emanuel Lutes’ terrific over-the-shoulder catch in left field robbed Klein of another potential home run or extra-bases hit.
Rantoul starter Adam Crites tossed seven innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on eight hits with five strikeouts to one walk, and Nolan Roseman pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning.
"With the exception of the last run, it’s not like we just gave it away," Centennial coach Ryan Remole said. "They hit the ball well, and they just made plays. Hats off to Coach Donovan and the Rantoul players. We knew it would be tough to score when Nolan Roseman got on the mound. I think he’s one of the top pitchers in central Illinois. He’s very, very good.
"I’d be a lot more disappointed if we had kicked the ball around and just played bad baseball. But I don’t think we played bad baseball. They hit the ball where we weren’t. They painted the allies perfectly. It’s not like my guys weren’t hustling out there. Rantoul just played better."
Donovan knew from experience it would be a hard-fought game heading into the contest.
"Very evenly matched. They had a little more offensive firepower. I told the guys that before the game," Donovan said. "I thought from a pitching standpoint, we were a little stronger this year. But in terms of measuring the teams out, I knew it was going to be like this. They were loaded offensively, and credit to Adam for keeping them off balance as well as he did, and the team just showed a lot of grit and mettle. We had an opportunity to win in the seventh, but we came back in the eighth and gave it to them."
Now, the Eagles coach will start preparing them for a loaded Braves team that won the Apollo Conference with an 11-2 record.
"We took the team two days ago to watch them against Centennial," Donovan said. "They’re just a very, very fundamentally sound team. They don’t make mistakes, and they have a lot of high-level players who have played together for a long time. We’re going to have to hit some good pitching, and I think Nolan’s going to do a good job for us on the mound."
Contact Zack Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.