There will be 383 teams fighting for four state titles later this month as the IHSAA has announced the sectional pairings for the 46th annual state baseball tournament.
The Braves, Jets and Stars all have posted stellar records thus far this season and look to make some noise in the tourney.
Bellmont has a tough sectional to deal with in the 3A bracket with the #9 state-ranked Norwell, #12 Whitko who just came away with a big win against the Braves last week, and a feisty Heritage team that gave Bellmont run for their money earlier in the season.
The draw put the Patriots against Eastbrook in the first bracket with Bellmont drawing Mississinewa in the other. Getting a bye were the Knights of Norwell and they will play Whitko in what could be the game of the sectional as Norwell has struggled to win big games in the second half of the season, while Whitko seems to be peaking at the right time making the semi-final matchup one to watch when the time comes.
Mississinewa's ho-hum record and weak schedule make them look easy to overlook, but the Braves learned a valuable lesson just a few days ago when meek-looking East Noble, a bottom-tier NHC school handed them a 1-0 loss thanks to a combination of stellar pitching and sleepy Bellmont hitting.
The Indians of Mississinewa don't have many marquee wins but they have beat the teams that they should have with wins against Bluffton in a double-header (6-5 & 4-2), Eastbrook (1-0), and a slew of misfit 1A schools that are still looking for a decent program. Several losses point to Mississinewa being a favorable draw for Bellmont such as a short-handed Southern Wells squad (10-8), Jay County (8-3), and Yorktown (6-2), games that the Braves have or could have easily won this season.
Looming in the next round is most-likely the Patriots of Heritage who will be looking for blood should they get past Eastbrook (and they will...). Bellmont got away with murder when they snuck a few runs past Heritage in the seventh inning to earn a 3-2 win. The Braves were the better team in the matchup, and I assume that's why they won (as the saying goes) but should they advance to the sectional semi-finals, I look for a rejuvenated Heritage squad to come ready to play.
The Whitko-Norwell game will be a close one, but I feel as though Norwell will come ready to play and Whitko will suffer a little bit of stage fright. Bellmont should see the Knights in the final.
Bellmont is my favorite to win the sectional for obvious reasons. With nothing to lose, the Braves have less to prove than Norwell who have spent their whole season in the public eye being a team that should be better than they have been after losing virtually no one from last year's successful playoff run. The Braves proved this theory when they beat them earlier in the season, 7-3. Norwell is an NHC team, however, and one of the better ones. I'm sure that in the heat of a sectional championship, the Knights will show their true capabilities and come out swinging. My guess is so will coach Fawbush's Braves...
In the 2A sectional featuring the Stars and Jets, the draw could not have been more appropriate. Adams Central has the better pitching, the better hitting, the better record, and the better conference showing...but are they the better team? The upstart Starfires have handed AC two of their eight losses on the year including a 12-11 win in the Coaches' Classic when Blake Fox knocked in the game's winning run in the bottom of the seventh, and a more recent 14-12 win against them to put another wrench in the ACAC standings.
And wouldn't you know it...they drew each other in the first round.
The Jets have huge wins to show for their stellar season and have not been overwhelmed by any team, even in their losses. The Jets have been beaten, however, by the Stars and by the Knights of Bishop Luers who loom in the other semi-final with the bye-game against Bluffton.
So how do the Jets prepare for a third meeting with SA? And what is it about county rivalries that just seem to shake the Jets of late? For AC to win against the Stars and make the third time a charm, they should take a note from the sectional champion basketball team who went through both the Stars and Knights just a few months ago.
Just play your game.
A few of the key players on the b-ball team that cut down the nets for coach McClure are on coach Dave Neuenschwander's baseball squad so it really should not be a stretch to think that there will be a sectional pep-talk from the players down in the AC locker room soon.
The Stars' key to beating the Jets for a third time is pitching. South Adams has proved all season long that their bread and butter has been hitting. They know they can hit. The Stars need to have a stellar day on the mound from one of their horses, either Wanner or Batt. Conventional wisdom says to throw Wanner because he locates well and Batt seems to be the type of pitcher AC has crushed all season long, but I would be comfortable giving the ball to either senior because it's their time. Both are game-ready and both can get it done.
Whoever survives the blood-bath will move on to the winner of Eastside and Churubusco. This game will be a toss-up as both have beat each other once this year and in both games the winning margin was ten runs. I give the edge to the Eagles, however, as they have been in a tougher schedule this year and should be ready for the playoffs.
Once through the semi-finals, the winner will most-likely face Luers who just recently beat the Jets on Tuesday night. The Knights drew Bluffton in a game that should be a laugher as the Tigers have been a lot of team's punching bag this year, clearly a rebuilding one for them.
Maybe I'm AC-biased but I feel as though the Jets will be the team to beat in the playoffs and will advance besting both of the teams who previously beat them in the Stars and Knights with AC edging out Luers in the final. I would not be surprised to see SA in the finals, however...
Predictions: 3A: Bellmont 8, Norwell 6; 2A: Adams Central 4, Bishop Luers 3