BRADFORD — The defending state champion Russia Raiders, now 23-6, try to accomplish a feat this week that a Division-IV baseball program has not pulled off in more than a decade.
Minster is the last school to earn southwest regional baseball titles in back-to-back seasons. During 2011 and 2012, the Wildcats romped to state crowns under coach Mike Wiss after sweeping the Springfield region. Delphos St. John’s and Defiance Tinora represented the northwest region at the state tourney in those two campaigns, while Minster won the Coldwater district and was sent south.
The journey to the Final Four was through Springfield then, as it is this Thursday and Friday, when ScoresBroadcast.com calls the action starting at 1:25 PM on both days.
And the challenging task for Russia requires the Raiders to remain standing on Friday after a regional that includes upstart Bradford (21-10), which takes part in its second baseball sweet sixteen ever after edging state-ranked and Shelby County Athletic League champ Fort Loramie; Southeastern (14-9), which authored two no-hitters this season and makes its second straight regional appearance under two different head coaches; and Fairfield County’s Berne Union (18-9), which plays in its very first regional since the 1930’s, not many seasons short of 100 years ago.
Disregard that these three clubs have lost 28 games. Each head coach and his players, just like Kevin Phlipot’s Raiders, have used every contest along the way as a stepping stone and prep for the journey through the tourney. And this quartet of regional teams is right now playing its best brand of baseball this spring.
To say the Raiders will be opposed in a Thursday-5 PM, region semi-final by a Berne Union Rockets team on “cloud nine” is an understatement. The club from the tiny town of Sugar Grove, a dozen miles south of Lancaster, has been making history of major proportions.
To make the remarkable story more complete, consider that Berne Union baseball is nearly homeless. This marked the third season that Mid-State League games slated for Sugar Grove were played in Lancaster, as were most of the Rockets non-league contests.
The Berne Union high school campus lacks a baseball diamond. Infield practice takes place on one of two, contiguous fast pitch softball fields which can virtually use some of the same outfield fencing. The small football stadium, with goal posts marking a 300-foot homer, is the site for hitting and outfield work. And without a baseball pitching mound on site, the Rockets transport a makeshift “bump” into the gym to fine tune the pitching staff.
Over the next several months, a newly constructed Berne Union K-thru-12 school replaces the old, long-standing building, which then gets replaced with a high school baseball complex.
This spring, the Rockets top three hurlers have made good use of practice and the “pitching mound on wheels,” sharing 120 innings in games while striking out 130 hitters. Berne Union sixth year head coach Chad Cupp will choose from senior Nate Nemeth, junior Cade Pugh, or junior Austin Snyder to try and slow down the Raiders’ bats.
Russia can counter with a couple well-rested front line pitchers, senior Xavier Phlipot and sophomore Braylon Cordonnier, who have been primed over the last several weeks to start the big games in June.
Phlipot sparkled during the first five innings in the district semi-final versus Newton, featuring a curve ball with significant downward bite. Cordonnier tossed a one-hit, complete game, gem in the district championship and was popping the mitt at well over 80 mph. The Raiders are loaded with additional, experienced pitching help in the bullpen.
Pitching will also make the difference for Southeastern and its coach Darron Routzahn in the region semi-final versus Bradford on June 1 at 2 p.m. Routzahn was the assistant to Craig Isaac last year when the Trojans reached the regional at Princeton.
Juniors Zach McKee and Gehrig Cordial, regulars as sophomores, pace a strong pitching staff and fashion earned run averages of 1.2 and 2.1, respectively. McKee tops the current club with nearly 50 innings and has recorded five shutouts. He has registered a walks/hits per innings pitched, or WHIP, of only .8.
Bradford first-year mentor Bill Sturwold, who coached 19 years at Fort Loramie after six at Russia, possesses pitching stud, 6-3 Tucker Miller, who two-hit FL in the district semi-final. His ERA is less than .9. He is hitting .434 and has swiped 24 bases.
Highly touted St. Henry, alive in the northwest regional, was a late-season victim of Bradford and Miller.
The big question is: Does Bradford use Miller on the bump for Thursday, or its number two, Landon Monnin, thus saving Miller for a regional title contest on Friday?
Because Bradford plays in the first game on Thursday, the Railroaders won’t know if they tangle with Russia or Berne Union in the Friday final. So, it’s a real tough call.
These numbers and various statistics of all four teams have been discussed and highlighted over and over by many interested in this much anticipated D-IV regional.
Bottom line: the Thursday winners will limit their mistakes, produce better pitching, and rise to the occasion during a seven inning, region semi-final.