By Kyle Daubs
Jarod Kiger loves a good cliche every once in a while.
With one of the biggest matchups of the season looming this weekend, it was only natural for the Mattoon head coach to go traditional in his response to implications resulting from Saturday’s Coles County Clash and Apollo Conference matchup with Charleston.
“As the old cliche says, ‘We are taking it one game at a time,” said Kiger. “I was very pleased with our performance last Saturday. We were able to play good defense behind another solid outing by Meade. Offensively, we put the ball in play and had some clutch hitting, including a two-run home run by Zach Wetzel.”
Mattoon thrust itself into Apollo contention last week with a 4-1 win over Effingham, at the time ranked No. 5 by MaxPreps. So now Mattoon, Effingham, and Mount Zion are all at 3-1.
A win over No. 8 Charleston could put Mattoon in the proverbial driver’s seat for the Apollo title. Mattoon lost to Mt. Zion at the beginning of the season, but Charleston owns a win over Mt. Zion. Those tiebreaker scenarios are still a long shot away given what could happen in the conference, but the Green Wave has come a long way since starting the season 1-6.
“For the first four games of the season, we were without three key starters due to COVID-tracing from soccer,” said Kiger. “Then to make it a little better, their first game back was a conference doubleheader against Mt. Zion. They had only practiced twice before their mandatory 14-day break, so we struggled. However, we were not dealing with anything unique. This spring has been very interesting and challenging, but I feel we have stepped up to the challenge.”
Since starting the conference season with a 4-1 loss to Mt. Zion, Mattoon has rattled off wins over Taylorville, Mahomet-Seymour and Effingham. The win over Effingham might have been their most impressive to date, given that Effingham’s ace, Jackson Lee, entered the game without having allowed an earned run in 20 innings.
Mattoon is now 8-6 overall, a turnaround Kiger attributes to seniors Meade Johnson, Austin Baker and Gavin Gonzalez.
“After a 1-6 start, our guys never wavered and continued to work,” said Kiger. “Each day, they show up for practice ready to work. We have focused on fundamentals in the field and at the plate. Our recent run can be attributed to solid senior leadership. Not only have they led us on the field, but have kept the team locked in and focused on the big picture. Every day, I stress to them to have fun. With our season lost last year, we understand that things can be quickly taken away, so we focus on getting the most out of each daily opportunity.”
Mattoon will get another look at a top pitcher in the Apollo. Charleston’s Ben Hess, the No. 1 ranked pitching prospect in the state, looks like he is back to full strength.
“I have assumed that we would see Hess in Game One,” said Kiger. “All I know about him is he is a solid number one starter and gives them a solid chance anytime he steps on the mound. He has plus-velocity, movement and other pitches that make him dynamic. Our approach will remain the same. Have a disciplined, unselfish approach at the plate. Put the ball in play and enjoy the opportunity to face a pitcher who has a huge upside.”
Mattoon senior Meade Johnson, who is headed to play baseball next year at Heartland College, limited an Effingham offense that was hitting .292 as a team to just one run.
For now, everything about this matchup screams top baseball matchup in the state on Saturday.
Ace vs. Ace.
Charleston, 2-2, in the Apollo needs a win to stay in the mix.
Mattoon could carve out their destiny.
Expect a crowd.
“The pitching matchup should be a good one,” said Charleston head coach Derrick Landrus. “I expect a pretty big crowd. It should be a fun day of baseball. We are looking forward to trying to win our third straight conference game and give ourselves an outside chance at the conference.”
Who: Mattoon vs. Charleston
Records: Mattoon (8-6, 3-1) vs. Charleston (17-6, 2-2)
Where: Mattoon High School
Time: 11 a.m.
Pitching Matchup to Watch (starts for last start)
Ben Hess (Charleston): 3⅓ innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 3 walks, 8 strikeouts (0.00 ERA)
Meade Johnson (Mattoon): 6⅔ innings, 5 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 8 strikeouts (1.05 ERA)