MT. VERNON —
Brian Sipe grinned and tightly gripped the baseball.
The ball had just popped into the Mt. Vernon senior catcher’s mitt for a game-ending third strike, and he sprang to his feet to give it to its rightful owner.
Fellow Rams senior James Mulvaney, fresh off a five-inning no-hitter, walked from the mound toward Sipe and the two shared a moment that had been years in the making.
Mulvaney, Sipe and senior Mike Swinnen — Mt. Vernon’s all-time hits and doubles leader — were inserted into the Rams’ starting lineup as freshmen in 2007. While they admittedly have unfinished business this spring, winning the South Seven Conference title on Mulvaney’s no-hitter Thursday was a landmark for the group.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Swinnen. “I’m at a loss for words right now. Everything we’ve worked so hard at the last few years has paid off.”
Thursday’s win and this year’s success — the Rams have won 14 straight games and are 22-4 — has not been the result of three years of playing together for Mulvaney, Sipe and Swinnen. Rather, it has come after the trio grew up playing together on travel teams and in summer leagues.
“We’ve been playing together for a very long time,” said Sipe, “I think from about fifth grade on.”
Once they reached head coach Tim Holloway’s program, Mulvaney, Sipe and Swinnen were thrust quickly to the varsity level. It was a gamble by Holloway that paid immediate dividends. While the Rams finished 7-22 during the 2007 season, they lost 12 games by two runs or less. Mulvaney was named Pitcher of the Year as a freshman while Swinnen was selected as the team’s Defensive Player of the Year.
A year later, with Mt. Vernon improving to 17-15, Swinnen was a first-team All-South Seven Conference outfielder, while Sipe was the league’s first-team All-Conference catcher and Mulvaney was a South Seven first-team All-Conference pitcher. Swinnen and Mulvaney both were named to the Southern Illinois Coaches Association All-South team as well.
The Rams also remained in the hunt for the South Seven Conference title that season, as well as in 2008, when they finished 21-12 overall. All three again were named to the All-Conference team while Swinnen received All-South honors.
Mulvaney, Sipe and Swinnen are part of a senior class that also includes Steve Beckham and Jesse Stuckey. The five have been part of a Mt. Vernon team that has gone 60-31 over the last two and a half seasons.
The group played key roles in back-to-back regional championship game appearances as well as conference championship-contending seasons in each of the last two years.
“That’s what winners do,” said Holloway. “They work until they figure it out. It’s a group of winners.”
Mulvaney has gone 8-0 on the mound this spring with a 0.81 ERA. He has allowed 11 earned runs, with six coming in a game at Centralia last month. The senior has struck out 74 batters and has walked 14.
Mulvaney also leads the Rams in several offensive categories, including batting average (.531), RBIs (39), doubles (16), on-base percentage (.562) and slugging percentage (.815). In addition to throwing the no-hitter against Cahokia, Mulvaney grabbed the Mt. Vernon single-season doubles record.
He said the individual and team success has been made more gratifying by the fact Sipe and Swinnen are around to share in it.
“It’s been very special,” he said. “It feels good to be with my guys. We love it. It’s one of those perks that comes with it.”
Sipe is batting .366 and is tied for the team lead in both home runs (four) and runs scored (35). He has 30 RBIs, eight doubles and a triple. While he has gunned down six of the eight baserunners who have attempted to steal on him, he has successfully stolen 17 bases in as many attempts.
Swinnen is hitting .432 with 14 RBIs, seven doubles and a pair of triples. He replaced Kent Williams as the Rams’ all-time hits and doubles leader in April, and Holloway has said in four years he has not seen Swinnen give up in an at-bat.
Pretty gaudy statistics by the heart of a conference champion team. Not that they are paying attention.
“We had a plan coming into our senior year,” said Sipe. “We just wanted to win as many ballgames as we could, no matter what the stats say or anything like that. We just wanted to win ballgames.”
Sipe and Swinnen will continue as teammates beyond their final season at Mt. Vernon, as both are headed to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Mulvaney opted to attend and play for the University of Southern Indiana.
Those plans in place, there is unsettled business, according to the Rams’ trio.
“It’s just awesome to get this conference championship done,” said Swinnen. “But now we’ve got to look at the next few weeks ahead and get things done there, too.”
“We’re focused,” added Mulvaney. “We want to go far this year.”
MT. VERNON —
Brian Sipe grinned and tightly gripped the baseball.
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