Can Illini West pitch way to another title?
The Chargers rolled to a Class 2A regional championship last spring with the help of pitcher Jackson Porter.
The right-hander, who's now pitching at Carl Sandburg College, tossed a three-hit shutout while striking out 10 in last year's regional title game against Monmouth-Roseville. He went onto be a first-team all-area pitcher with a 0.74 ERA and had 91 strikeouts.
Illini West's Carter Boyer is doing his best Porter impression this spring.
Boyer tossed a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts in a 7-0 victory over Unity. It's the fourth shutout he's thrown this season.
"(Boyer's) been throwing well all year long, and he's really put it together," Illini West coach Zak Huston said. "We've got a couple other pieces that do a really good job. What's helped him out the most is throwing strikes consistently because walks will really hurt you."
Illini West has won five straight and has two games remaining until it opens play as the No. 6 seed in the Class 2A Rushville-Industry Regional. A victory over third-seeded Sherrard probably would set up a showdown with No. 2 seed Knoxville for the regional crown.
"Pitching is where it's at," he said. "You have to have the pitching and defense to win, and I really like where we are at."
Can Liberty rekindle last year's magic?
The Eagles entered the final month of the regular season 9-9 and were seeded sixth in the Class 1A sub-sectional. However, Liberty went on an eight-game winning streak that carried it to the sectional championship game. That run earned Eagles coach Brigham John postseason plaudits, including being named The Herald-Whig Coach of the Year.
Liberty could be in a similar position to make another run. The Eagles sit 11-11 and are the No. 5 seed in the Class 1A Central Regional. The Eagles have pitching depth with three quality arms -- Hayden Spilker, Kutter Thompson and Logan Robbins -- each having logged more than 24 innings. That trio also has a combined 115 strikeouts.
Liberty has six players hitting better than .319. Thompson leads the team with a .488 batting average and nine doubles.
Can Brown County change its trajectory?
It's been four years since the Hornets last won a regional championship in 2015, but Brown County has been in a tailspin late in the regular season. The team that won its first five games in April has going gone 1-5 in its last six games.
The lone victory was a 10-4 triumph against Rushville-Industry that snapped a five-game skid.
Brown County has been trying to get beyond the regional tournament since doing so in 2015.
Struggling in the second half of the season isn't a way to get that done.
The Hornets won the first five games in April, but have struggled recently by dropping five of their last six. A 10-4 victory over Rushville-Industry snapped a five-game losing skid.
The Hornets are the No. 4 seed in the Class 1A Triopia Regional and need to gain some momentum before potentially facing top-seeded Jacksonville Routt.
Has Central righted the ship?
A slump in late April forced Central coach Jordan Tenhouse to hit the reset button. That started with an 8-6 victory over West Hancock.
Since that game, the Panthers have won four of five and grabbed the No. 2 seed in its own Class 1A regional.
"I'm pretty optimistic most of the time, and I know baseball is a crazy game," Tenhouse said. "I knew we'd have a good team, but during that streak when we were losing, we were losing to good teams by just a run or two. It wasn't like we were getting drubbed."
The biggest improvement revolves around better approaches at the plate. Central is averaging 9.4 runs in its last five victories.
"We're just more aggressive in the counts," Tenhouse said. "I think that's been a contributor to our success."
Who will pull off a surprise run?
The biggest sleeper is Southeastern, the No. 9 seed in the Class 1A Central regional. A victory over Payson Seymour would set up a showdown with Central. The Suns are led by Shad Flesner, whose done a little bit of everything on the mound and with his bat. He likely determines how far the Suns can go.
In Class 2A, West Hancock could be a surprise. The Titans are the No. 9 seed in the Rushville-Industry regional, but beat first-round opponent Rushville easily in March. Another victory may be a springboard to a surprising run.