EAST PEORIA – As she did all game long, Huntley catcher Lindsay Morgan turned her head to her right and took the sign from the first-base dugout.
Huntley assistant coach Matt Langton, sitting atop a yellow bucket full of wiffle balls, flashed the sign to Morgan, who relayed it to Red Raiders pitcher Briana Bower. There was no hesitation from any of them. It was a process the three had perfected through countless repetitions.
When Bower fired the third strike past St. Charles East’s Kati Gheorghe to secure a 1-0 victory and Huntley’s first team state championship in school history, her teammates mobbed her in the circle. In the dugout, Langton made one final note on his clipboard before sharing a hug with another assistant coach.
“I cannot do this and we are not here without Matt Langton,” Huntley head coach Mark Petryniec said. “The hours he puts in, the scouting report, his attack on the batter, he’s the best assistant coach in the state of Illinois. He could be a Division I head coach and we are fortunate to have him.”
With a sophomore pitcher and a sophomore catcher, Langton was the veteran presence guiding the battery to a state title.
“He knows what he’s calling and he knows when to throw something and when not to throw something,” Morgan said. “He can pick up what’s not working and where the zone is by sitting in the dugout.”
A coach at Marengo for seven years, Langton had been here before with the Indians, helping them to a state appearance in 2008, a championship in 2011 and a runner-up finish in 2012.
This week, Langton and the Red Raiders coaches put in long hours scouting Marist before Friday’s semifinal game. Marist had won 35 straight games and hadn’t lost to a team from Illinois all season.
“We spent probably four or five hours just trying to figure out trends with Marist,” Langton said.
“Obviously, they had some pretty talented players. We were just trying to figure out when they were getting outs, where were they hitting it to get outs? How does that fit with our defense?”
Huntley’s defense was in the right place nearly every time Friday. Marist connected on some hard-hit balls, but almost always right at a defender.
“There were numerous amounts of phone calls looking for anything that could help us,” Petryniec said. “We went through every one of their games, inning by inning, trying to find any kind of chink in any of those batters.”
It wasn’t quite as in-depth of a crash course before the championship game because Huntley had seen St. Charles East in the regular season, beating them, 9-0, April 13.
Even so, Langton had a tough time sleeping before calling the biggest game in Huntley program history.
The now 29-year-old joined coach Dwain Nance’s Marengo staff as a 17-year-old volunteer in 2007. The Marengo native had simply wanted to be a manager, but Nance was looking for an assistant.
His wife, Sam Langton (formerly Sam Clemons), was a record-setting pitcher at Huntley from 2006 until 2009.
“Her teams really put Huntley on the map,” Petryniec said. “Matt married her.”
That provided a natural connection between Matt Langton and Huntley, and in 2014 he left Marengo to become Petryniec’s assistant.
“We had just started a family, so Sam was going to stay home,” Matt Langton said. “It just really worked out. Mark and I had met a few times and just chatted. Our philosophies really jibed.”
When Bower came onto the scene last year as a freshman, she was no surprise to Langton. He had given her pitching lessons for a year when she was younger.
“All the credit goes to her,” Langton said. “She works really hard. I wish I could say it was me, but truthfully it’s her.”
Still, the coach on the wiffle ball bucket knew the right pitches to call to guide the sophomore to 13 strikeouts, and Huntley to its first state title.