Having to forfeit seven victories. Losing three key players during the postseason. Trailing by five runs and down to their final two outs in the sectional championship game.
None of those things could prevent the 1998 Ottawa Pirates from ending up where they knew they could be.
The Pirates overcame those loses and staged a comeback for the ages in that aforementioned sectional final — capped by a miraculous home run off the bat of Eric Farmer — to punch their ticket to the Class AA state baseball tournament.
This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the Pirates' run to state in '98.
"It's hard to believe it went that quick; it seems like it was yesterday," said team member Travis Harth. "It comes (to mind) about this time of year when you see some of these local schools doing well and reminds you of what (my teammates and I) went through when we were that age. It's a life-changing moment that you won't ever forget. It's a pretty good time and a real good feeling to make it to state."
"I really didn't think about it as being 20 years," head coach Randy Bretag said, "but I do think about it a lot, because I enjoyed every second of it. It was a very special (time) in my life."
There were expectations galore for the '98 Pirates entering the campaign.
Ottawa — which finished with an official record of 19-12 (26-5 unofficially) — boasted a trio of senior aces in the southpaw Harth, Bobby Torres and Brandon Canada. A stellar "D" was spearheaded up the middle by the junior quartet of catcher Brent Heaberlin, second baseman Mark Loudon-Brown, shortstop Nick Vessell and center fielder Cory Newman.
The offense, ignited by tablesetters Newman and Loudon-Brown, featured senior slugger B.J. Olson, The lineup also included Canada, 12th-grader Ben Newell, Heaberlin, Harth and Torres.
"To be honest, I thought we had a state-caliber team," Harth stated. "I think we were very well-rounded; pitching, defense, hitting. I mean, we were tough one through nine. And I think what made us hard to beat was if our (main players) weren't (performing), the guys right behind them picked them up. We were stacked. I mean, it was going to be tough to beat us. I really thought that, and we played like that."
"I had high hopes for that season," Bretag admitted. "I knew we had a good nucleus of seniors coming back, and then we had some real good juniors coming in, and the combination really meshed together. I would say during the middle of the season, I could see we had the possibility of doing something big. You could just see (the kids) getting better and better, and mentally they got stronger, and they had a lot of confidence in themselves after the (early) winning streaks."
The Pirates won their initial nine ballgames and 17 of their first 19. In mid-May, they were forced to forfeit seven of those wins — including four conference — though, due to the use of an ineligible player, a reserve.
"I was devastated for the kids," Bretag said, "because they had such a great season going, and then all of a sudden ... It's just really tough, you know, being possible conference champs and having an outstanding season going down. But they battled right back. It didn't seem to bother them as much as I thought it would."
"I think that was the turning point in the season," Harth said, "that everyone said, 'Hey, they can try and knock us down, but they're not. We're just going to keep rolling.' "
Indeed they did, winning five of seven to close the regular season.
The top-seeded PIrates beat always-solid Sycamore to claim to Rochelle Regional championship. Before the Galesburg Sectional, Ottawa lost a pair of players to ineligibility, a primary pitcher/regular and a part-time starter. In the sectional semifinal, the Pirates defeated Quad Cities powerhouse Moline, a confidence-boosting "W" heading into their title tilt against perennial Peoria-area power Notre Dame, a contest that Heaberlin wouldn't available for (vacation).
Versus PND, the Pirates were facing a five-run deficit (8-3) in the bottom of the seventh inning with one out. They proceeded to put up a six-spot — which included a two-run double by Olson and a two-out, two-run, walkoff homer courtesy of the 10th-grader Farmer in his first plate appearance of the postseason — to stun the Irish.
"You know, deep down, I thought, 8-3, that's going to be impossible to come up with (six runs); there's no way we're going to come back," Bretag admitted, "but I didn't let on to the kids.
"I put a lot of pressure on (Eric). I called him over and said, 'Eric, don't try to kill it, but we need a home run here.' And he looked at me and said, 'OK Coach, I'll do it.' I was watching the ball and the center fielder was underneath it getting ready and pretty close to catching it right by the wall, and all of a sudden it kind of lifted up, like a couple of angels picked it up and took it over the (right-field) fence. It was unbelievable."
"Well, Bretag told me to sit on the first pitch and try to hit a home run ... he wanted me to hit one," Farmer told The Daily Times. "After that first pitch I missed, I didn't know if I was going to get another good one, but (the PND pitcher) was just throwin' down the plate because he wanted to get strikes. I just got lucky and sat on one."
In the state quarterfinals, the Pirates took on another juggernaut, Tinley Park Andrew, and fell to the eventual runner-up Thunderbolts 7-1.
"I think what happened at state that hurt us," Bretag said, "besides losing (one of our top pitchers), was Travis had pitched a lot (recently), and he gutted it out as long as he could and did an outstanding job for being pretty tired (Harth pitched on a day rest).
"We battled and didn't give up the whole game. I was very proud of the kids, especially, you know, they had to be tired and worn out (the Pirates played on a day rest after the PND game was pushed back two days because of rain)."
"It's a very exciting environment to be in when you're a high-schooler," Harth said of pitching at Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva. "We had a lot of support there from Ottawa. I mean, it gave me goosebumps to be honest."
The '98 Pirates are the lone team in program history to reach state.
"It's tough getting there," Bretag said. "We just caught a few breaks, especially in the sectional final. I believe in miracles, and I really think it was a miracle when we beat Notre Dame that day.
"They can be proud to say they were the best at Ottawa ever."
"Being the first team is pretty amazing with all the talent that's came through that school in years prior and the years past us," Harth said. "I'm not saying we were the most talented team that ever went through Ottawa, but I think we were the most well-rounded team that played together as a group. It's a team effort to make it that far, and I think we played good team baseball all season."
It was a season filled with adversity to say the least, but the Pirates always rose to the occasion.
"I think everyone had it set in their mind that they knew how good we were, regardless of what was thrown at us," Harth said.
No. Name Pos. Yr.
7 Cory Newman OF Jr.
9 Rob Smeets OF Jr.
10 Mark Loudon-Brown IF Jr.
11 Nick Vessell IF Jr.
15 Pete Hoffmann IF Jr.
19 Darren Bragg P Jr.
20 Bobby Torres P/OF Sr.
21 Ben Newell OF Sr.
22 Doug Shumway C Sr.
23 Eric Katrein IF Jr.
24 Carl Hortega IF Sr.
25 Brandon Canada P/DH Sr.
27 Brent Heaberlin C Jr.
29 Mitch Hetelle P So.
30 B.J. Parrott P So.
31 Eric Farmer P So.
32 Jim Mitchell OF Jr.
33 Travis Harth P/OF Sr.
34 Ryan Lowery OF Sr.
35 B.J. Olson IF Sr.
Head coach: Randy Bretag
Assistant coach: Mark Andrews