PBL baseball ends season with 6-4 loss to Unity in regional semifinals

GIBSON CITY — The Paxton-Buckley-Loda varsity baseball team faced a familiar fate on Thursday.

In the IHSA Class 2A Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Regional semifinals against Tolono Unity, PBL took its second two-run loss of the year to Unity. After losing 5-3 to the Rockets on April 10, the Panthers lost 6-4 to Unity on Thursday.

“That was the story of our year,” PBL head coach Brock Niebuhr said. “We were just so close all year long.”

During the regular season, PBL (15-14-1) went 2-7-1 in games decided by two runs or less, including a 6-6 tie against Clifton Central in a 13-inning game played May 9. The Panthers are 4-1 in contests decided by three runs.

They defeated Monticello, the team Unity will face in the regional championship game on Saturday, 8-3 on April 21.

“We had some really nice wins,” Niebuhr said. “I told the guys I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a team that’s played in more close games. It was a grind day-in and day-out. The kids, to their credit, never batted an eye at it. They never gave in or gave up. Today, they competed until the very end. We just came up short.”

Jeremiah Ager retired the first six Unity batters he faced on Thursday, including three via strikeouts.

In the third inning, the Rockets took a 5-0 lead as Dylan Moore hit a two-RBI single with one out before Brock Suding hammered a three-run homer past the left-field fence.

“(Jeremiah) left one pitch out over the plate, and their hitter didn’t miss it,” Niebuhr said. “That’s what good players do. When they get a mistake, they don’t miss it.”

Ager allowed only one more run in the fourth inning as Aiden Porter hit a leadoff double before scoring on an error on a ground ball hit by Gavin Moore. Ager would pitch a completes game for PBL as he yielded six earned runs on six hits and one walk with six strikeouts.

“Jeremiah was really good again today,” Niebuhr said. “Jeremiah didn’t hang his head (after the homer). He got through the rest of that inning and was able to settle back in. He competed all year long. He doesn’t have the same velocity as some of these other guys, but he can pitch. When you locate your fastball, when you can throw a changeup in hitters’ counts and you can spin a breaking ball, you’re going to get a lot of people out, and he did that all year for us.”

In the top of the fourth inning, PBL started chipping away at Unity’s lead with a run as Ager drew a leadoff walk and Mason Uden doubled to center field before Ager scored on a Tyler Cole groundout to cut the Panthers’ deficit to 5-1.

The Panthers then scored three more runs to cut their deficit further to 6-4.

Bryar Cosgrove drew a leadoff walk, Noah Steiner singled to center field and Aiden Johnson each drew a walk to load the bases. With one out, an error on an Ager ground ball resulted in Cosgrove crossing home plate and Steiner scored on a bases-loaded walk drawn by Conner Vaughn.

With two outs, Cole drew another bases-loaded walk to send Aiden Johnson across home plate.

“What a great group of guys. They just continued to compete,” Niebuhr said. “They just battled. They’re so hard-working and competitive. I’m fortunate I got to coach them. They were a lot of fun, and they worked really hard.”

After Ephraim Johnson struck out with the bases still loaded to end the top half of the fifth inning. In the sixth inning, Cosgrove – who finished the game hitting 2-for-3 – hit a leadoff infield single and Aiden Johnson singled to left field to put runners on first and second base with one out. Kayden Snelling then hit a ground ball that resulted in a fielder’s choice that forced Cosgrove out at third base via a throw from the catcher Suding.

Ager then struck out to end to leave two runners stranded before a 1-2-3 seventh inning ended the game.

The Panthers finished the game with 10 runners left on base.

Cosgrove was left stranded in the third inning after hitting a leadoff double as Steiner flied out and Aiden Johnson and Snelling each struck out. In the first inning, Aiden Johnson drew a two-out walk and Snelling reached base on an error to put runners on first and second base, but Ager struck out.

“We had a lot of runners on base all day long,” Niebuhr said. “We just couldn’t get one big hit to really push us over the edge, but at the same time, you could see our kids battling and trying to find a way. That’s baseball – sometimes you can hit a ball off the end of the bat and it falls in, and sometimes you can hit a ball right on the barrel and it’s right at somebody. Unfortunately, the balls that we hit were at guys and they hit a couple of balls that weren’t at guys. Give them credit. They played well enough to win, and we came up just short today.”

The Panthers say goodbye to six seniors — Mason Uden, Kayden Snelling, Ephraim Johnson, Aiden Johnson, Peyton Hutchcraft and Jeremiah Ager. The senior class did not have a freshman season due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“I’m just so appreciative of how hard they worked,” Niebuhr said. “They’re one of the most coachable classes I’ve ever had. They never batted an eye or questioned anything going on. They bought into everything we were trying to do as a program and worked as hard as they could to become as good as they could, and I appreciate the example they set for the underclassmen.

“Some freshmen and sophomores got a lot of meaningful innings on the mound and defensively and some meaningful at-bats, and we’re going to need those guys to step up next year, but they saw and learned how we’re going to do things and what our expectations are. Our seniors set that example every day, and I thank them for that.”

Unity 6, PBL 4

PBL         000   130   0   — 4   5   1

UNITY   005   100   x   — 6   6   2

W – Tre Hoggard, 4.1 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 7 K, 6 BB. L — Jeremiah Ager, 6 IP, 6 H, 6 ER, 6 K, BB. S – Austin Langendorf, 2.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 5 K, BB.

PBL (15-14-1) – Bryar Cosgrove 2-3, 2B, R. Noah Steiner 1-4, R. Aiden Johnson 1-2, R. Jeremiah Ager R. Mason Uden 1-4, 2B. Conner Vaughn RBI. Tyler Cole 2 RBIs, 2 BB.

Unity (24-8-1) – Easton Cunningham R. Dylan Moore 1-3, 2 RBIs, R. Brock Suding 1-3, HR, 3 RBIs, R. Aiden Porter 1-3, 2B, R. Emmerson Bailey 1-3, R. Tyler Henry 2-2, 3B, R.