The Hiland Hawks took advantage of a sloppy defensive inning to roll past a hot Tusky Valley Trojan squad 10-0 in five innings on Wednesday to claim yet another district title.
The last time Hiland faced off with Tusky Valley the Hawks came away with a lopsided 9-1 victory. At the time the Trojans were reeling, sitting at 2-11 after the Hiland defeat in what looked like a lost season. But the loss to the defending state champions would be the turning point to their season.
“We started the season 2-11, and we finished the season 11-2. We really turned it around halfway through the season,” Tusky head coach Josh Jarvis said. “Actually Hiland was our 11th loss. We hadn’t lost since then. We started to gain confidence and got rolling, and things really started to fall into place after that.”
If the first game with Hiland was the turning point, the second was the end.
“We warned the kids that this wasn’t the same team that came to play us last time,” Hiland coach Tom Gibson said. “I think they understood that and came out and played a hard game.”
As sharp as Hiland was, it didn’t translate to runs as a pitcher’s duel between Hiland’s Mitch Massaro and Tusky Valley’s Benton Franks moved into the bottom of the third in a scoreless game.
The second time through the order would not be as kind to Franks.
Chris Kline got on with a one-out single and advanced to third on Tyson Gingerich’s deep double to center. A Bryan Yoder sacrifice fly and Ryan Hershberger single plated two. After Andy Miller smoked a liner to left for one of his three singles on the evening, Massaro hit a hammer-shot midway up the fence for a two-run double and a 4-0 lead after three.
“We hit the ball hard tonight,” Gibson said, adding that it’s not always getting hits that show how a team fares at the dish. Nobody knows that better than Jarvis.
“We only had one or two hits in the book, but if you were watching the game, we were getting the barrel on the ball, so I thought we were swinging well and were going to get to him eventually, but we never did,” Jarvis said. “I felt like we hit the ball real well at the start of the game, and they just made plays. They made a couple diving catches, and a couple more inches on those balls and we could’ve had something going.”
Those diving catches were fantastic plays, both in the top of the third inning. Tyson Gingerich dove to his right and snagged a liner that was smoked off the bat of Jared Keinzle, leading off the inning. Derek Miller then ranged far to right-center to make an acrobatic catch to end the inning.
Total number of batters in that inning: 3
In the game Tusky Valley only had one real threat in the top of the fifth when Franks was hit by a Massaro pitch and was bunted to second in what was still a 4-0 game. But Massaro got a strikeout and a comebacker to end the inning.
“Mitch had a pretty good game,” Gibson said of his senior hurler. “But when he did get touched up for a hard shot, it was because he was up in the zone. So going forward in regional play, he’s got to work the knees. Because if you get up around the waist, guys are going to turn that around. But he did what he needed to do tonight and got the job done with a nice effort.”
That opportunity in the fifth would be the Trojan’s last of the season as Hiland took advantage of three errors to blow the game open and end it early with a six-run bottom of the inning.
With reliever Seth Johnson on the hill for the Trojans, the super-soph tandem of Ryan Hershberger and Andy Miller got things started with back-to-back, one-out singles. Williams wanted no part of Massaro and walked him to load the bases. A Braden Mast grounder to short with a drawn-in infield was thrown away at the plate, and Damien Kandel’s sharp grounder to second went right through the wicket. The pair of errors would cost Tusky Valley dearly.
“You can’t make mistakes against Hiland. They’ll make you pay,” Jarvis said. And pay they did. By the time the lineup rolled around to Yoder for his second at-bat of the inning, his walk-off RBI single to left made it a 10-0 shutout win for the Hawks.
“I told the kids there’s a reason you want to play the state champions,” Jarvis said. “You watch everything they do. It’s for a reason. They’re real intentional with the things they do, and their technique is flawless. I said that’s where we need to get to be. It’s good to measure your success by the team that just won the state title.”
For Gibson it was another of what seems a countless number of district titles on his decorated resume. Hiland moves to 27-0 with the win and advances to face Martins Ferry in the regional semifinal next Thursday at a location to be determined.
Massaro was again both efficient and effective on the mound for Hiland, striking out three, allowing only two hits and walking none in his five innings of shutout work to improve to 6-0 on the season. Franks took the loss, tossing three innings, surrendering four earned runs on six hits while walking just one.
In addition to Andy Miller’s three-hit night, Gingerich and Hershberger both had a pair of knocks for the Hawks with Massaro, Kandel and Yoder driving in two apiece.
For Jarvis it was a bittersweet ending to an oddly rewarding season. It was a big stepping stone for his young Trojans, which started two freshmen and three sophomores against Hiland’s heavily senior-laden lineup.
“Coming into tournament as the 14-seed, we weren’t really expected to do much, but we played a real tough schedule, and I knew our kids had the ability to play well, and we showed that in our first two games. But we just didn’t get it done tonight,” he said. “They definitely learned a lot through this tournament run, so we’re really excited to have them back and looking forward to having more opportunities for the regionals in the future.”
If they plan to go that far in 2018, however, the road may still have to travel through Berlin. And if one would have to guess by the track record, it’s a road that will not be an easy one.