Clutch hitting helped Cuyahoga Heights return to the state tournament for the first time since 2012 and the third time in school history.
The Redskins defeated Berlin Center Western Reserve, 6-5, in the Division IV regional championship game at the Pipe Yard in Lorain on Friday. They first reached the state tournament in 1976 when the Redskins finished as state runners-up.
Western Reserve, the defending Division IV state runner-up, bowed out of the tournament.
“It was a dogfight,” said Cuyahoga Heights coach Marc Lowther. “They don't quit. We don't quit. These two teams are mirrors of each other.”
Cuyahoga Heights jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the second when Aaron Kucia hit a leadoff single and moved to second on a ground out. He advanced to third and also scored on a wild pitch.
The Redskins extended their lead to 3-0 in the third.
Matt Harris was hit by a pitch and moved to second on a wild pitch. He scored on Dalton Skerlec’s single. Brett Lowther then bunted for a base hit and Skerlec scored on a Tyler Selig ground out.
Western Reserve came right back with three runs in the bottom half of the inning on four hits, a walk and an error.
The Redskins responded.
Tyler Hughes led off with a single and R.J. Dean walked. The two runners moved to second and third on a wild pitch and Nick Frye walked to load the bases. A passed ball made it 4-3 and Lowther delivered a two-out, two RBI single to make it 6-3.
“We had guys doing things that we don't normally do (on offense),” Coach Lowther said. “I think we bunted three times and we had some key two out hits, at least two or three of them, with guys in scoring position. The hitting was there when we needed it and that's what's been going on the last few games. We're getting that two out hit with runners in scoring position and you get those runs with two outs you take the pressure off the pitcher.”
Michael Hartman kept the Blue Devils in check in the bottom of the fourth but Western Reserve did make it interesting with two runs in the bottom of the fifth on three singles.
Hartman went on to five straight batters until a single and an error in the bottom of the seventh put the tying run in scoring position. A ground out to short ended the threat.
“He was keeping the ball down in the zone and throwing strikes,” Lowther said of Hartman. “He had a hiccup here and there but he would bounce back. He was very positive on the mound. Every time something was going wrong he would talk to the guys. The inning where they scored their three runs, he pulled everyone to the mound and he talked to the kids that made the error and said, 'Relax, I've got confidence in you. Let's get this done.' I was very proud of him on that. It would have been very easy for him and the team to go south but they didn't.”
Hartman allowed five runs on 11 hits and struck out four.
Brett Lowther and Kucia both finished with two hits to lead the Redskins at the plate.
Cuyahoga Heights last played in the state semifinals in 2012. The Redskins defeated Berlin Hiland, 6-4, and then lost to Minster, 5-4, in the Division IV state championship game.
The Redskins have reached the regional tournament in six of the eight seasons since moving down to Division IV in 2009 but this will be the first state tournament experience for every player on the roster. The current seniors were in eighth grade the last time Heights reached the state semis.
Lowther isn’t worried his players won’t be ready for the moment.
“They're goofy kids,” Lowther said. “It may just be something that's like, 'Oh, we're going to play baseball, just at a different field.' That's what I hope happens. The only person who has any inkling of what this is like is my son Brett, because he was on the bench in 2012. The rest of the kids were eighth graders. The kids have played in some big games over the last two years. All the kids that were juniors played in regionals last year and this year. The seniors have played for three years now in the regionals. Michael and Aaron both have pitched in the regionals for three years. I think at first they're going to be awestruck but I think they'll figure it out and go out and play baseball.”
The Redskins (14-9) will play North Lewisburg Triad (25-7 and ranked 15th in Division IV) in the semifinals on Friday at Huntington Park in Columbus at 7:00 p.m. The winner advances to Saturday’s state championship game against the winner of the Fort Recovery (22-8, #10) vs. Newark Catholic (22-9, #5) semifinal game.
Triad beat Lehman Catholic, 11-0 in five innings, to advance to the state semis for the first time since 2002 when the finished as state runner-up. The Cardinals also played in the state tournament in 1973.
Newark Catholic defeated Western Reserve, 6-0, in last year’s state championship game and also won the state title in 2013. Newark Catholic finished second in 2014. The Green Wave will make their 16th appearance in the state tournament. They have won eight state titles and finished second three other times.
Fort Recovery is making just its second appearance at state. The team first qualified in 1953.