How a childhood bond helped Washington earn another trip to IHSA baseball state finals

Dave Eminian
Journal Star
Gus Lucas (left) and Easton Harris -- who've played together since they were 7 years old -- embrace on Stone Field after helping Washington High School beat Sycamore 8-4 in the IHSA Class 3A Geneseo Supersectional title game to earn a berth in the state semifinals on Monday, June 6, 2022.

GENESEO — Easton Harris and Gus Lucas remembered the big picture Monday.

The figurative one that serves as the Washington seniors' last chance to win a high school championship. And the literal one that serves as a reminder to a long baseball story built together.

Harris, Lucas and their teammates put together a four-run sixth inning to complete a comeback to an 8-4 victory over Sycamore in a Class 3A Geneseo Supersectional title game at Stone Field delayed 93 minutes at the outset by rain.

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That put the Panthers (34-5) back in the Illinois High School Association state semifinals for the second straight season.

"It's unbelievable, but I wouldn't say it's unexpected— not with the guys we had coming back this year," Washington coach Kyle Wisher said. "But to win this supersectional again and get to the final weekend, the way this team has fought, and handled pressure, and made comebacks ... it's been incredible to watch.

"We got down, but it didn't bother us, it's the personality of this team to push back."

A personality a long time in the making.

The 10-year-old you

There's this old photo of a Washington Panthers youth traveling team, from 2014. It was a 10-under squad that won a tournament to finish a 39-19 season. The kids were all holding trophies.

The Washington Panthers 10-and-under travel baseball team won the Panther Classic to conclude a 39-19 season. Members of the squad are, in front, from left: Trey Fabish, Jake Stewart, Mason Geltz, Easton Harris, Carter Wilson and Caleb Wudtke; second row: Andrew Mueller, Kyler Klings, Tyler Bishop, Kaleb Gauf and Gus Lucas. Not pictured is Kane Fox.

Gus Lucas is in the top row on the right, arm around a teammate. Easton Harris in the front, arm around a teammate. 

Caleb Wudtke was on that team and in that picture, too. So was Tyler Bishop. And Jake Stewart and Kyler Klings. All six of those 10-under teammates grew up to be in the Washington starting lineup Monday in Geneseo.

"Easton and I were 7, 8 years old when we started playing together," Lucas said. "A lot of guys on this team grew up playing together, or at different schools against each other, but we all know each other and have a long history as teammates. It's special to be here with these guys."

Said Harris: "We've been playing since we were 7. I love having him as a teammate, there are so many memories we've had as kids." 

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Back in 2014, those kids faced a Dunlap team that had been to the title game four years in a row and was the highest-scoring team in the tournament that year. Harris threw a complete-game shutout with 10 strikeouts and Washington won the title.

Not much has changed.

"Easton, the guts he showed, he was a dude tonight," Lucas said in the aftermath as Washington players hoisted the supersectional plaque and took pictures with family, hugged each other, soaked it all in. "To win on a stage this big, it takes a special effort, and this team showed the heart that has driven us all year."

Sycamore opened up a lead

Sycamore sent junior right-hander Jimmy Amptmann to the hill to open, and he threw 91 mph fastballs mixed with an excellent changeup and struck out 11 through a 99-pitch, five-inning stint.

The Spartans gave him a 2-0 lead in the third inning. Byron Blaise singled through the box, and Kiefer Tarnoki followed with a single through the hole at first. 

Big left-handed first baseman Tommy Townsend then drove a 3-0 pitch to the warning track in left-center, and it hopped over the fence for a ground-rule double and 1-0 lead. 

Amptmann helped himself out with a line-out to center field that allowed Tarnoki to tag up at third and score for 2-0.

Washington High School head coach Kyle Wisher holds the IHSA Class 3A Supersectional champions plaque, surrounded by his coaching staff, after the Panthers earned a trip to the state semifinals with an 8-4 win over Sycamore in Geneseo on Monday, June 6, 2022.

Washington charged back first

Washington opened the fourth with a single from Lucas, and Bishop was hit by a pitch.

Stewart was next, and put down a bunt back to the mound. But Amptmann heaved it over Townsend's head and Lucas came around to score, while Bishop ended up on third and Stewart on second.

Keegan Isbell then ripped a two-run single to center for a 3-2 lead.

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Sycamore answered

In the bottom of the fourth, Kyle Hartmann reached on a dropped third strike, and it cost Washington. Two outs later, Tarnoki lined a single over shortstop to tie the game.

Then Owen Piazza stepped up and sent a ball to the right-center gap to plate Tarnoki with a go-ahead run at 4-3.

Washington charged back again

The Washington bench as the final pitch is thrown in their 8-4 win over Sycamore in the IHSA Class 3A Geneseo Supersectional to earn a spot in the state semifinals on Monday, June 6, 2022.

Washington tied it with a solo run in the fifth. Then in the decisive sixth inning, Sycamore sent left-hander Griffin Hallahan to the hill. 

Isbell took his first pitch to the deepest part of the park — 360 feet — and off the left-center wall for a double.

Jack Limas' one-out single through the hole at short sent Isbell home with a 5-4 lead.

Limas stole second and third, Wudtke walked, and Harris lined a 2-2 pitch to left field for an RBI single and a 6-4 lead. 

Bishop sent a two-out grounder that went right between shortstop Kyle Hartmann's legs and bounded into the outfield for a two-run error and 8-4 lead.

Harris held Sycamore in check in the sixth, and Garrett Cox threw a 1-2-3 seventh to close it.

"That was the best team we've faced all year," Harris said. "They got some runs off me. That entire lineup could hit, and there was nothing else I could throw at them. 

"My outfield was just unbelievable, the defense out there."

'One last time'

Sycamore had won 16 straight games and was dispatched at 28-7. 

Washington, meanwhile, won its 11th in a row as Harris had two hits, two RBIs, threw 105 pitches, allowed three earned runs on six hits, struck out eight and walked two.

Lucas had one hit, scored a run, and made a couple of clutch catches in right field.

Isbell had a 4-for-4 day.

Washington High School teammates Easton Harris (left) and Gus Lucas hold the championship plaque after leading the Panthers to an 8-4 victory over Sycamore in the IHSA Class 3A Geneseo Supersectional on Monday, June 6, 2022.

"It feels great to be back in the state semifinals," Lucas said. "To get the chance to do it all over again means a lot."

They will play together at Bradley University next season. But this is it for high school, down to trying to better a fourth-place state finish in 2020-21.

Washington will face Chatham Glenwood in the first semifinal Friday at 10 a.m. at Duly Health & Care Field in Joliet. Crystal Lake South faces LaGrange Park Nazareth in the other semifinal at noon.

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"This is it for Gus and I," Harris said. "Now we're going to the state semifinals, one last time, and it's emotional."

And they can picture how they'd like it to end.

Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or deminian@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.