LAKEWOOD—Career win No. 100 didn’t come easily for Kirtland head coach Luke Smrdel.
The Hornets had to battle back from a five-run deficit to beat top-seeded Elyria Catholic in the Division III Lakewood District championship game on Thursday. The district title was the first in school history for the Hornets, who will play Grand Valley in a regional semifinal on May 24 at Massillon High School.
“I couldn’t imagine it any other way,” Smrdel said of the milestone victory and historic win. “It’s like a storybook ending; it’s unbelievable. It’s our first district championship in school history and to get 100 wins on the same day, but that’s secondary what to these guys accomplished. They were down 5-0. They could have just rolled over and been done but they had tons of fight in them.”
Elyria Catholic scored three runs in the bottom of the second and added two in the third to take a 5-0 lead into the fourth inning.
That’s when Kirtland finally found its offense and scored 10 runs on seven hits and six walks.
Mike Zeuli, one of three Hornets to finish with three hits, led off the big inning with a single and moved to third on two passed balls. Ryan Lipps and Mike Alfieri both walked to load the bases and Luke Potosky singled home Kirtland’s first run. Tyler McCrory’s single cut Elyria Catholic’s lead to 5-3 and Tyler Bratton singled to reload the bases.
Joey Mongelluzzi then singled to tie the game. Joey Torok’s sacrifice bunt put runners at second and third and Seann McGill walked to load the bases once again.
Zeuli stepped up to bat for the second time in the inning and doubled to give the Hornets their first lead, 7-5. Lipps singled, McGill walked and Zeuli stole home to make it 9-5. Bratton walked with the bases loaded to push the Kirtland lead to 10-5.
“I just wanted to score as many as we could,” Smrdel said about the 10-run inning. “No lead is safe in the playoffs and we can’t take anything for granted. We had to try and score as much as we could and keep the other team down. Playoff baseball is crazy.”
The Hornets added five more in the fifth on four hits and two walks. Lipps and McCrory both doubled in the inning.
Kirtland had an opportunity to end the game in five but the Panthers scored two runs in the bottom half of the fifth to stay alive.
Two walks and a hit batsman forced Smrdel to relieve Bratton, who started the game, with Vince Liuzzo, who limited the damage and kept Kirtland safely out in front.
Zeuli, who chased down a fly ball hit deep into the left-center field gap with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth, pitched the final two innings for the Hornets. He allowed just one hit.
Zeuli finished 3-for-5 with two runs scored and three RBI, had two hits in Kirtland’s 10-run inning and also singled in the five-run fifth. His fifth-inning catch saved at least two runs, probably three, and he pitched two scoreless innings to help the Hornets reach the regional tournament for the first time.
In the month of May, Zeuli is batting .586 (17-for-29) with five doubles, three triples and 15 RBI.
“I’m without words,” Smrdel said. “He’s probably the best baseball player I’ve ever coached. He just gets the job done non-stop. He’s our guy and he shows it every day. He’s special.”