Sophomore Jake Hoover fields a ground ball in a game against Bel­larmine earlier this season. (Photo: Trish Ver­brugge | Courtesy)

Both the Hillsdale College and the Uni­versity of Illinois-Spring­field baseball teams scored 11 runs over their four-game series last weekend. Unfor­tu­nately for the Chargers, the Prairie Stars allo­cated their runs more effi­ciently, taking three of the four closely-con­tested games.

“It was much better than last weekend. We played much better baseball,” head coach Eric Theisen said. “I don’t like our record, but I like our team right now. We’re playing pretty good baseball and going into con­ference play is the time to do that.”

The Chargers emerge from an excep­tionally tough non­con­ference schedule with a record of 3 – 13. Seven of these losses, however, have been by one or two runs.

Against UIS, cold tem­per­a­tures, snow during batting practice, and strong winds blowing in put runs at a premium.

The Prairie Stars opened up a 2 – 0 lead over the first five innings of game one, but a double by junior catcher Steven Ring put Hillsdale on the board in the top of the sixth. After UIS responded with one in the bottom of the inning, RBIs from Ring and senior captain out­fielder Ryan O’Hearn in the eighth and ninth innings respec­tively sent the game to extra innings.

In the top of the tenth, a trio of walks loaded the bases for junior infielder Colin Hites, who had entered the game as a pinch runner. Hites doubled on a 2 – 2 pitch, giving the Chargers the 6 – 3 lead, which would be the final.

“Coach T stuck with me there, and I had felt good the last three or four games at the plate, even though I wasn’t seeing results, so it was nice to get,” Hites said. “We’ve been a hit away from a lot of wins and luckily we just hap­pened to get that hit and get one to fall our way.”

Senior starter Will Kruse set the tone on the mound for the Chargers, striking out eight over six innings and allowing three earned runs.

Sophomore Joe Hamrick and junior Chris Ack­erman com­bined to toss the seventh and eighth scoreless, and freshman David Toth held the Prairie Stars in the ninth and tenth to secure the victory.

“Our pitching was phe­nomenal this weekend,” Hites said. “Every starter did their job and kept us in games where we weren’t hitting.”

Game two was another extra-inning affair. After UIS scored an unearned run in the first, sophomore starter Andrew Ver­brugge took control, tossing the next six reg­u­lation innings scoreless.

A home run from sophomore Dante Toppi tied the game in the top of the fifth at 1 – 1, but the Prairie Stars finally got to Ver­brugge again in the bottom of the eighth with a walk-off single. Ver­brugge allowed only five hits in the effort.

“Ver­brugge has been great,” Theisen said. “He’s a classic sinker­baller and he’s added a handful of pitches to his arsenal from last year to this year. He’s added some dif­ferent arm angles and he’s ath­letic enough to give a few dif­ferent looks and a few dif­ferent pitches. He’s really come into his own identity in the past year.”

Pitching con­tinued to dom­inate on day two, where UIS took game one 3 – 1, with all three Prairie Star runs coming in the bottom of the fourth. The lone Charger run came in the top of the fifth on an RBI single by sophomore infielder Jake Hoover.

Senior Phil Carey started the game for Hillsdale, allowing three earned on five hits over six innings of work. Sophomore Kolton Rominski tossed the final two frames, allowing only one hit and no runs.

For the first time all weekend, the Chargers opened the scoring in game two on Sunday with an RBI single by freshman James Krick in the top of the third. The lead didn’t persist, however, as UIS plated three runs in the bottom of the inning.

An RBI from Ring in the top of the sixth brought the Chargers within one heading into the final frame.

With two outs in the top of the seventh, Hoover singled, stole second, and advanced on an error to put the Chargers 90 feet from a tie ballgame. An O’Hearn walk prompted a UIS pitching change and UIS junior Alec Altmyer took the mound. With O’Hearn on the move, Altmyer bounced a breaking ball on his first pitch, causing the ball to squirt away from junior catcher Ben Schanding. Schanding gathered the ball quickly, however, and beat Hoover in a race for home, ending the game.

“That ball gets a foot further away and Hoover gets in there, but the catcher made a good play,” Theisen said. “I like the aggres­siveness on Hoover’s part. When we have speed on the basepaths we need to use it… teams that play aggressive and aren’t afraid to fail are the teams that come out on top, more often than not.”

Red­shirt freshman Chris Dunn made his first col­le­giate start in the game, allowing three earned in two innings of work. Freshman Sawyer Allen took the ball next, throwing four innings of scoreless ball.

According to Hites and Theisen, the message going into the weekend was focusing on the little things to make a dif­ference in the big things. Theisen said he thought his team — which has only been on a baseball field once outside of a game this spring — did well on that front.

“That’s a message that you’ve got to remind guys about every couple of months,” he said. “You start playing games and you can start to forget about your training and your routine and those little things. You start to get excited to just go to the ballpark and play a game and it’s not that simple. You have to be sure to take care of all those little things, because at the end of the day those all add up and the wins and losses take care of them­selves.”

After four weeks on the road the Chargers finally get to play in front of a home crowd this weekend, when they host the Alderson Broaddus Bat­tlers for a double headers on Sat­urday and the Davis & Elkins Sen­ators for a double header on Sunday. Games will start at 1 p.m. on each day.

“The reason that we scheduled such a tough first four weeks is here, now — get us ready for con­ference play,” Theisen said. “I think our guys are more than ready to go. It’s nice to really get into this con­ference play and start to get going. We feel like we have some things figured out and we’re starting to settle in.”

The players echoed their coach’s sen­ti­ments.

“We’ve played all of the best teams in the region,” junior infielder Dylan Lot­tinville said. “We know what it takes, what it looks like, and that we’re in that range. We know we can be that good. Now we just have to prove it and start winning some games.”