BUTLER – At Eastside's baseball field, there are banners hanging on the fence from 2000 and 2011 that read “Elite Eight.” There are none that say “regional champions” or “semistate champions.” There are certainly no “state champions” signs.
The Blazers have a chance to change all that tonight.
It has already been a historic season in Butler. Eastside ran through the Northeast Corner Conference undefeated and has captured the first regional and semistate titles in school history with ease, outscoring its opponents a combined 27-4 in those championship games and 53-7 overall in the state tournament.
Tonight, the Blazers (26-6) will get a chance at the ultimate prize when they play Providence (22-7) for the Class 2A state championship at Victory Field.
“It's surreal, really,” Eastside senior Dylan Hertig said of his team's run through the playoffs. “It's something you dream about, but you don't think is really going to happen. We've just looked at (each other) and said, 'Guys, we're going to state, this isn't a joke anymore.' It's actually happening.”
The Blazers reached this point with a 9-1 victory over No. 6 Delphi in the semistate at Kokomo that was never particularly close. Junior Owen Willard, Eastside's leadoff hitter and ace on the mound, was a dominant force in the victory, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning, finishing with a complete-game two-hitter and going 4 for 5 with two doubles, two RBI and a triple at the plate.
Willard, who has thrown two no-hitters this season and come within one out of a third, will likely get the start again tonight to try to hold down a Providence offense that averages 9.6 runs and beat No. 8 University 14-1 in the semistate. Pioneers third baseman Eli Watson is one of the top hitting prospects in the state and plans to play at Western Kentucky in the fall.
“Anytime you go out there, you have confidence,” Hertig said of having Willard on the mound. “It's just that simple. You have confidence he's going to throw strikes. You know he's going to do that. He's going to bring it and we're all going to bring it too.”
Willard's counterpart on the Providence side will likely be senior right-hander Ray Reisinger, who touches 84 mph with his fastball. He struck out nine in the semistate win.
The Blazers have the Butler community behind them: They had a huge crowd make the trip with them to Kokomo and signs of support litter the storefronts of the DeKalb County town with less than 3,000 residents. Eastside was scheduled to spend part of Friday night at the local youth baseball field signing balls for young players, as well.
“When you start to make a run, everyone jumps on and joins the fun,” said Blazers coach Aaron Willard, who coached Eastside to a Class A state softball title in 1998. “I think we'll have a lot of people (in Indianapolis). They always come out and support us, and it'll be no different (today). I guarantee it.”
Though he said Butler might “lock the town up” with everyone in Indy for the game, Aaron Willard stressed that he did not want his team to feel any pressure heading into the biggest game in program history.
“We've already won, man, that's my message,” the coach said. “Let's go have fun. I've told our kids and they know, I was more stressed in the sectional than I was in the regional or the semistate. Our goal was to win the sectional, and I wanted that really bad for them.
“But since then I've calmed down and just let them play. ... Let's just go play and have fun, you never know how a baseball game's gonna go. It's a season full of lessons and this is our final exam.”
Class 2A State Championship
Eastside vs. Providence
When: Approximately 8 p.m.
Where: Victory Field, Indianapolis
Records: Eastside (26-6), Providence (22-7)