JOLIET, Ill.—One by one, members of the Hononegah baseball team trudged off the field for the final time as a group on Saturday with unhappy expressions, some with tears still staining their eyes.
They were, to a man, bitterly disappointed at the way their dream season had ended. After advancing to the IHSA Class 4A state tournament for the first time, the Indians had gone down twice.
In the semifinals, they saw dreams of a state title fall in a 5-3 loss to eventual champion Plainfield East.
They also dropped the third-place game, losing to O’Fallon 6-4 after a seventh-inning rally fell short.
The palpable disappointment, however, is a short-team condition. The Indians rode back into town the same way they rode out: In style, complete with a police escort.
The record books will reflect a fourth-place finish. But the 2021 Indians’ legacy will be that of a team that broke through.
“We won a regional title in 2000,” Hononegah coach Matt Simpson said. “Then we were stagnant for a long time. Finally, 21 years later, we won a sectional title, then moved right on to state behind that.
“What this team has done is set a new bar. Talking about going to state is no longer going to be some distant goal. They can see it’s attainable, because this group of guys went out and did it.”
Indeed, the Indians did. They did it with a trio of seniors (Noah Goddard, Braden Sayles and Gabe Roessler) who have occupied the most important positions on the field and in the lineup since their freshman year.
They did it with the steely will and consistency of staff ace Ryan Anderson, the defensive wizardry of Ryan Whitledge, the pure speed of Bryce Goodwine and the overall skill of Dylan Sayles.
The did it with the two-way play of Scotty Porter, the depth at second base with Eli Anderson and Drake Emanuel, adept baserunning by Grant Porter and timely hitting by Michael Anderson. Bowen Smith provided key relief all year, and the bench mob provided consistent positive chemistry and energy in the dugout.
It was a complete team, one that refused to give up regardless of how dire the situation might have looked. A Goddard bomb here, a Roessler web gem there. It was a team that emptied its tank, and when Dylan Sayles’ soft line drive found the glove of the O’Fallon third baseman, sure, the season ended, and yes, there was sorrow.
But when the class of 2021 comes back for a basketball game in 10 years and sees its picture on the wall, they won’t think about a rough Saturday in Joliet. They’ll think about the bus rides, the sectional title, the team dinners, and the fact that they, not anyone else, were the first team in program history to break through to a state tournament.
That doesn’t sound like a fourth-place team to me.