Posted Online: April 25, 2013, 5:47 pm

TRAC-9 leading Panthers stirring memories of 2011

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By Terry Duckett,

With his team sitting atop the Three Rivers Conference baseball standings as the season hits its halfway point, Erie-Prophetstown coach Jason Orman has a familiar feeling.

When asked if he feels as if his 10-6 Panthers (6-0 TRAC-9) compare to the 2011 E-P team that advanced to the Class 2A Final Four and returned home as bronze medalists, Orman is quick to respond.

"Yeah, they do," he said with a laugh. "I was talking to my coaching staff about that a bit. It feels a lot like that team, which won with pitching and defense. We have two nice front-line starters who I think get the wins against quality opponents; our pitchers are throwing strikes more consistently; and defensively, we're a lot better than last year.

"We just need to get a little tougher at the plate, but top to bottom on offense, I think this team is deeper, and probably better. But with only 16 games, we haven't got as many reps and haven't been able to completely put it together. We're stronger but not quite there yet."

Last weekend, the Panthers took a big step toward earning their long-awaited first conference baseball crown with a 4-3 victory over five-time reigning TRAC-9 champion Morrison. Junior Owen McConnell's two hits and three RBIs backed another solid outing by fellow junior Ethan Howard, the ace of the staff with his 5-1 record.

"Our pitchers who were sophomores (on the varsity) last year, Ethan and Kenneth Cole (2-0), they've made some big strides and are starting to pitch more consistently," said Orman. "They're both more in control of the games they pitch with a lot less walks and less jams to get out of."

Senior outfielder Zach Hart has stepped to the forefront on offense. The Black Hawk College signee (following in the footsteps of one of 2011's standouts, Eann Cox) is hitting .457 with four doubles, four triples, five home runs and 25 RBIs. Freshman shortstop Jordan Chandler, sidelined with a knee injury, checks in at .500 with five doubles, four triples and three homers.

"Once we get into a stretch of games where we see a lot of good arms and get some more live hitting, we should be ready to go come postseason," said Orman, whose club faces TRAC-9 rivals Kewanee and Bureau Valley on Friday at Ashford University Field in Clinton. "The kids are excited, hungry, and they want to win."

Erie-Prophetstown still has one more meeting with Morrison, on May 6 at Prophetstown, and that could wind up deciding the race. The Mustangs (7-3) stand just a half-game back at 5-1 after Wednesday's 12-3 win over Riverdale at Clinton.

Of Morrison's two nonconference losses, one came at the hands of undefeated Western Big 6 leader Alleman.

"That's a program we want to measure up to and stay at that level on a consistent basis," Orman said of coach Ben Sondgeroth's club. "Beating them was a huge confidence booster."

Another team still in the hunt is Fulton, which has won three of its first four TRAC-9 outings behind the torrid hitting of senior outfielder Colin Tichler and the pitching of senior Matt Dail and junior Ethan Jones.