OLNEY — When facing an uphill climb, it helps to have a little motivation.And the Effingham baseball team has had plenty since suffering a doubleheader loss to Mattoon back in mid April.Not only did the Hearts want to turn their season around after watching their record drop to 2-7, they longed for a chance to beat their nemesis when it mattered most — postseason play, something Mattoon had done to them the previous two seasons in regional title games.EHS did the former, rebounding from a slow start to finish the regular season 16-13. And the Hearts got a chance to do the latter after pulling off a pair of upsets last week at the Class 3A Olney Regional, setting up their latest regional title tilt with the Green Wave."Last year we had a really solid ballclub and it hurt us when they beat us, because we were the better team," said EHS senior Drew Levitt of an EHS team that won a program-record 27 games, but lost to Mattoon 2-1 in the championship of their own regional. "This year we had a little revenge (in mind)," Levitt added.The Hearts got it Saturday, as Levitt pitched eight shutout innings and drove in the game's only run with a sacrifice fly in EHS's 1-0 championship win over the Green Wave.Seeded fifth in the five-team tournament, the Hearts (19-13) completed their unlikely run to a third regional title in five seasons. They will now return home to Paul Smith Field to host Mount Vernon (28-7-1) in the first semifinal game of their own sectional Wednesday at 4:30 p.m."That was our goal — to get back to our home field," Effingham coach Chris Fleener said. "They beat us out the last two years. So we were glad to get this one. It felt good to get 'em."It's a fate that might have seemed tough to envision after the aforementioned doubleheader loss to Mattoon just a little more than a month ago. EHS found itself five games below .500 after the forgettable twin bill, but has gone 17-6 since."Since then the boys have kind of gelled and come together a little bit," Fleener said. "They are just understanding their roles and people are stepping up at the right time. And it's not just one player. We've had several players step up. It's been a wonderful team effort."Saturday was no exception. Though Levitt's individual efforts stood out, he was quick to point out that he got a lot of help on his way to a three-hit shutout. Third baseman Devin Mayfield, shortstop Brayden Bone and second baseman Adam Koester came up with big plays on the infield, while centerfielder Dirk Levitt and rightfielder Alex Webb robbed Mattoon of hits in the outfield."My defense — if I didn't have them today it wouldn't have been a game," said Levitt, who struck out six and walked three in his eight-inning masterpiece.And it might have been a different story if not for Levitt's own defensive contributions in the fourth inning.Mattoon was on the verge of breaking through with the game's first run, as it had runners on first and third with nobody out following a walk and a single. Levitt retired the next two batters on an infield fly and a called third strike, but a fastball got by catcher Carter Hayes and went to the backstop, prompting Mattoon's Payton Hartbank to try to sneak in to score from third.Hayes tracked down the passed ball quickly, however, and made a perfect flip to Levitt to cut down Hartbank by a mile at home."That was great hustle on (Hayes') part and Drew's part," Fleener said. "Something like that can change the game and give your team a little momentum. I thought it would but it didn't, offensively, but I think it gave our defense a momentum boost after that."EHS stranded runners on first and second in the top of the fifth, wasting a rare scoring opportunity against Mattoon starter Ryan Hutchinson. But Levitt continued matching zeroes against the righty, getting out of a first-and-second, one-out jam in the bottom of the seventh to send the game into extra innings.Kennan Mahaffey drew a leadoff walk to start the eighth and Brayden Bone moved him to second with a perfect sacrifice bunt. Alex Carie followed with a line single to center, but Fleener held Mahaffey up at third."I just about sent him home on the hit, but I held him up because we only had one out and two shots to get him in," Fleener said. "Fortunately it paid off."That's because Levitt followed with a sacrifice fly to deep left. Fittingly, considering his work on the mound, Levitt's RBI would give him a well-earned win."There were a couple parents on the sidelines who said, 'Drew, this is your game. Go get that run for yourself,'" Levitt said. "And I did it. It felt awesome."Levitt started the bottom of the eighth with a strikeout and Webb made a diving catch in right for the second out. Mattoon kept its hopes alive with an infield hit, but Levitt's twin brother snagged a liner to center to cap the Hearts' unlikely run at Olney.EHS wound up going 3-0 in the regional thanks in large part to outstanding starting pitching. Devin Mayfield went 12 innings on Monday in the Hearts' 4-2 win against Olney, while Kevin Daugherty earned the win with a solid effort in EHS's semifinal win against Salem."Devin, Kevin and Drew all put in excellent performances this regional," Fleener said. "I was really proud of my pitching staff."The Hearts will now go for win No. 20 — and a chance at more postseason hardware — on their home field, something that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago."I couldn't ask for a better ballclub right now," Levitt said. "We're playing together and we're really clicking."Mahaffey went 2-for-2 with a walk to lead EHS's offense from the No. 9 spot in the order. Carie and Hayes had EHS's only other hits, as Hutchinson took a tough-luck loss despite allowing just one run on four hits in 7.1 innings pitched. Mattoon finished 19-12, failing to reach the 20-win plateau for the first time in four seasons and just the second time in 15 years.Effingham 000 000 00 — 1 4 0Mattoon 000 000 00 — 0 3 0WP — Levitt (8IP, 0R, 3H, 6K, 3BB). LP — Hutchinson (7 1/3IP, 1R, 4H, 3BB, 6K).
Effingham — Carie 1-4, Dr.Levitt 0-3 (RBI), Hayes 1-3 (BB), Mahaffey 2-2 (BB)Mattoon — Price 1-4, Sparks 1-3, Hutchinson 1-3