TEUTOPOLIS — Those not paying close attention to Teutopolis' baseball season might have missed two bumps in the road as the Wooden Shoes made their seventh trip to the Class 2A state tournament in 10 years.
Last year's second-place finishers opened their season with three straight losses — enough to panic a lesser squad. Then, at the start of May, another three-game losing streak hit the Shoes — just when they should've been playing their best baseball.
But in classic T-Town baseball fashion, Illinois Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach Justin Fleener took those losing streaks and transformed them into positives that propelled the Shoes to contending for a state title again. They begin that quest in the state semifinals on Friday against Rock Island Alleman at 5 p.m.
The three losses to open the season were easily explained away — several players were on the Wooden Shoes' basketball team that advanced to the super-sectionals. It's a situation that Fleener deals with yearly and it gives the opportunity to throw players into new spots and put pitchers on the mound who might grow into starters next season. It also allows the established players to get into game shape without the fear of injury.
"The losses didn’t concern me at the time. I’m just fine with basketball going as far as they can and we will develop younger guys," Fleener said. "Dawson (Smith), Clint (Weber), Mitch (Hardiek), Evan (Addis) and Brock (Deters) — they were all able to progress at a pace that allowed them to not injure their arms in the process. The older players were playing positions but our hitting just wasn’t clicking yet. But we progressed nicely."
T-Town followed those losses with 17 wins in the next 19 games until a trip to the Edwardsville Tiger Baseball Classic brought another three-game losing streak. At the tournament, the Shoes ran into Edwardsville (4A), Highland (3A), and Chatham Glenwood (3A).
"That was rough," Fleener said. "Edwardsville’s pitching was strong. We went up there and we were aggressive, but the pitching was so good and it was hard for us to get things going. Chatham came out and put it to us pretty good, and we made some mistakes.
"After that I think it caused some of them to say, 'Hey, we can’t play like that.' And it caused them to get a little more focused."
The losses reminded the team what was going to be required to return to state.
"It definitely did," Wooden Shoes junior Mitch Hemmen said. "It was a wake-up call because we got second at state last year and I’m sure we thought a little bit that teams were going to fall over for us, but they didn’t. We turned it around and got it together."
Hemmen's pitching (7-0, 1.11 ERA) includes a no-hitter in the super-sectional against Harrisburg, a performance Fleener had never seen before in his 19 years as the Shoes' coach.
"We’ve had some great pitching performances, but I don’t remember a no-hitter at that level before — and a darn-near perfect game," Fleener said. "He induced 13 ground-ball outs on a turf field, and so those big hops were a lot easier to field. We mixed in a couple of nice plays to preserve the no-hitter."
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Up and down the T-Town roster, each player has had their moment. It might be a sacrifice bunt or a walk that leads to a steal that leads to a run. It’s a key to the Teutopolis game.
“They all do their part at their time which allows us to have success,” Fleener said. "In the postseason they have a point where they have come up big for us and they will have to continue doing that in the state tournament."
Weber, a senior, is 5-0 with a 1.36 ERA. In the postseason, he's batting .500 (9-for-18) with a home run, two doubles and 10 RBIs. The dinger came at the perfect time in T-Town's sectional final against Breese Mater Dei.
"Clint has done a good job of coming through," Fleener said. "The home run he hit against Mater Dei was huge, especially after we put a couple runs across and it was a blow to Mater Dei's momentum."
Weber is making his second trip to state and is peaking at the perfect time.
"It all just feels right," he said. "I’ve got to stay relaxed and play it just like it is a normal game. I’m glad to have made it as a senior. It’s definitely nice.
"Last year when I got there I wasn’t really expecting to play but we had a kid get hurt so I had to step up then. I was a little nervous but this year it feels great to be back and I’m ready for it."
The success of the baseball program has made the players local stars around T-Town, and Hemmen said he's grateful of the local support.
"I remember when I was little I treated the high school guys like they were celebrities," he said. "It’s pretty cool having these little kids coming up to you and giving you high-fives. The whole team gets that love and the community does a great job of coming out and supporting us."
2019 has been a memorable one for Fleener. Along with his Hall of Fame induction, he crossed the 500th career win milestone. But another state title this weekend would trump all that.
"The honors are nice and it’s a nod to the players that have been through here and helped me get to that point," he said. "I owe that to them, but (the state tournament) is their time out here to do it.
"They are performing and they are showing off their skills and that is much more enjoyable for me to see them have their success."