MORRISON – Even though he can seem far away from the action, Erie-Prophetstown center fielder Kallen Jepson knows that he has to be ready each time one of his pitchers is holding the baseball.
The Panthers, as they have done all season, were aggressive in trying to pick off opposing baserunners, and Byron found out quickly not to wander too far off the base.
In all, Panthers pitching picked off three Byron baserunners, but it wasn't enough to keep the Tigers from advancing in the 2A Morrison Sectional with an 8-1 win over the Panthers in the semifinal game.
"We have some play calls, so I know when to keep a lookout for the pickoffs," said Jepson, who has to charge in from the outfield in order to back up errant throws.
"Because I pitch, too, I can tell when a good situation for one is," he continued, "so I am always looking for that. I've learned to always be ready."
What he wasn't necessarily ready for, however, was when coach Jason Orman emerged from the dugout and walked to the mound for a pitching change in the sixth inning, and pointed out to center field for Jepson.
Jepson is the team's fourth pitcher in the rotation, and took the ball with the simple hope to slow down the Tigers' offense, something that four others before him tried to do.
"I just came in and tried to throw strikes," Jepson said. "That's all I really thought about."
The Panthers (14-13) used five pitchers in the game, with starter Ethan Howard taking the loss. He pitched two full innings and allowed one earned run, before being pulled in the third in favor of Jordan Chandler.
Howard labored through his two innings after getting into deep counts with batters, on top of three walks. He threw 49 pitches before he was pulled.
"We would have liked [Howard] to be able to get a little deeper into the game," Orman said, "but it happens sometimes. He struggled a bit with his control."
Luckily, just about every pitcher was available due to an extra day off after heavy rain postponed the game, originally scheduled for Wednesday, to Thursday.
So Orman trotted out to the mound at the first sign of trouble in order to keep the game close.
Orman told his players before the game, that they would need to score about five runs to be able to hang with the Tigers (33-5). E-P had six hits in the game, but couldn't string together more than one in an inning until the seventh.
Koby Kuhnen, pinch-hitting for Dalton Patton, batted in the Panthers' lone run in the top half of the seventh with a groundout to the second baseman, scoring Kyle Coleman.
Byron left-handed pitcher Nate Peterson (11-0) went six innings with nine strikeouts and no walks. He struck out the side in the first, before allowing a leadoff double to Owen McConnell in the second. Peterson stranded him at second base, and McConnell struck out in his next two at-bats.
"It was a good start to my game," McConnell said. "I just wish it ended a little better. [Peterson] was a really smart pitcher. He was throwing me high my first time up, then he adjusted.
"He kept everything low, and threw me a ton of curveballs. He was a good lefty."
While the lack of offense was glaring, the five pitchers kept the Panthers in the game. E-P trailed 3-0 through four innings, before a four-run fifth put the game out of reach, and took a mental toll.
"It was a little tough," said Jepson, who finished 1-for-3. "We were close, and thinking we were one big inning away, and when Byron got that inning, it took a little bit out of us."
Orman knew the Panthers had to play a nearly perfect game in order to advance after watching Byron play nearly flawless baseball in the previous round.
"Byron is a strong team that doesn't make mistakes," Orman said. "They just don't hurt themselves. They don't make mistakes and don't walk batters. That's a strong team over there."
Star of the game: Nate Peterson, Byron, 6 IP, 9 K, 0 BB, 0 R
Key performers: Jack Fleeger, Byron, 2 RBI; Owen McConnell, E-P, 1-for-3, double