By Kyle Daubs
There’s something contagious going around Mattoon all right.
After starting the season 1-6, the Mattoon Green Wave is riding an 11-game winning streak into Saturday’s Apollo Conference finale against 16-7 Lincoln.
Mattoon could clinch at least a share of the Apollo title with a win and could win outright if Mt. Zion were to lose to Mahomet on Saturday.
According to senior ace Meade Johnson, the bats have come alive.
“A big piece of our success is our ability to hit the ball, and it’s just been contagious throughout the team,” said Johnson. “We’ve just tried to keep our run going, gaining more energy with every win and feeding off that energy for each game.”
Since falling to Mount Zion in both games, the Green Wave haven’t lost an Apollo game. That includes last week’s extra-inning thriller against Charleston that saw Johnson go 8⅓ innings with 13 strikeouts.
Johnson has positioned himself as potentially the league’s best pitcher in the conference this season, outpitching the likes of potential MLB draft pick Ben Hess as well as Effingham’s Jackson Lee.
Against Effingham, Johnson scattered five hits, allowed one earned run and struck out eight across 6 2/3 innings. The right-hander is 4-1 having struck out 47 and walked only six across 30 innings for a 1.40 earned run average.
Austin Baker has also pitched well, posting two saves, 33 strikeouts, a 3.29 ERA and 1.54 WHIP.
“This team is a great group of guys and everybody is just out here having fun and putting in work, day in and day out,” said Johnson. “Our success is just the energy we bring to every game, and we believe that we can compete and win against any team.”
Before the year began, only two players on the team brought varsity experience. Plus, a few players were still playing in their soccer season due to COVID. That’s why the Green Wave struggled early.
Mattoon has rebounded, in part, thanks to its scrappy approach at the plate. The Green Wave have hit only three home runs and a .397 slugging percentage, but they average .311 at the plate have a .424 on-base percentage.
Johnson and Zack Wetzel pace the team offensively. Johnson is hitting .411 with a .522 OBP and a .678 slugging percentage for a 1.201 OPS. Wetzel, who has hit two homers, is slashing .409/.500/.636/1.136.
“I feel like we all have a certain role that we play a part in,” said senior Austin Baker. “We all do what we need to do and we don’t try to be selfish and play for ourselves we play for well being of our team. I do believe that we all were willing to learn and get better so we put ourselves to the challenge and got to work. I would say that this team is very willing to be the best they can be. I think that our team loves that people weren’t expecting us to put up as much of a fight this year that we have. That’s what’s pushed us to play our best, and now that’s put us into a spot that could help us clinch the conference.”
Top MHS Averages
No Apollo coaches had picked Mattoon as a contender for the conference title before the season began.
“When the season started, we were not worried about how others felt about what we could do as a team,” said Mattoon coach Jarod Kiger. “Honestly, we knew we had some high-end pitching, but we were also aware that we were young and would rely on many that had never played varsity baseball. I believe that the struggles we faced early, a 1-6 start and key players out with COVID, have helped us to develop into what we have become later in the season. We continue to work on the fundamentals each day and we have seen tremendous growth by the team as a whole as well as many individuals.”
While this is technically Kiger’s second year as Mattoon’s coach, it’s his really his first since COVID-19 wiped away last season.
“The coaching has also been very good this year,” said Baker. “Coaches always make it to where we are always having fun but also making sure that we are putting in the work that is needed to win ball games.”
Both Mattoon and Mount Zion have one loss in conference play.
“We are looking forward to the opportunity to play Lincoln this weekend,” said Kiger. “They are a solid team that has beaten some good competition up to this point in the season, so we know that it will be another Apollo Conference battle.”
As far as the game plan, Mattoon isn’t going to change much.
After all, it’s worked up to this point so far.
“Our team has continued to stay locked in and not think ahead of our next game,” said Kiger. “I believe that this approach has had a positive impact on these young men. We are certainly aware of the conference standings and what opportunity we have this weekend. However, as I have stressed all season, we must focus on the things that have put us in this position: Continue to have fun and play with energy, solid defense that allows pitchers to work efficiently, and have a positive approach at the plate.”
Who: Mattoon @ Lincoln
Time: Saturday, 11 a.m.
Where: Lincoln High School
Records: Mattoon (12-6, 5-1) @ Lincoln (16-7, 3-3)