Just like Superman, even the best teams have their Kryptonite, and for the Hiland Hawks, that seems to be Ridgewood sophomore hurler Koleton Smith.
Smith, who shut down the hard-hitting Hawks with a one-hit gem earlier this season, took the mound to face Hiland for a second time in the East District Div. III district championship game at River View High School on Wednesday, May 16. Much like he did in the first go-around with the Hawks, Smith was tough for Hiland to solve, and his three-hitter led to a 4-2 Generals’ win that sent the state’s top-ranked Div. III team home for the tournament.
“I’ve got a great defense behind me, and they do a lot for me,” Smith said of the victory. “My job is to go out and throw strikes, and they do their job in the field.”
As a sophomore, Smith’s composure belies his youthfulness, and he said maintaining an even keel means a lot. He said even after falling behind early, he didn’t allow that to affect the way he was throwing as he maintained that same tempo, rhythm and poise throughout.
“I tried to paint the corners and keep the ball low because they can hit,” Smith said.
Hiland knew coming in that it would be Smith toeing the rubber for Ridgewood, and after facing hard-throwing Edison pitcher Tristan Haught a night earlier, the complete reversal in facing a precision guy like Smith, who doesn’t overpower but mixes his pitches and keeps teams off balance, was like night and day.
“It’s a huge change, but it’s still another kid who is throwing strikes,” Hiland head coach Chris Dages said. “He’s got good off-speed stuff, and we just don’t seem to be able to find the swings we need against him. His performance was impressive. I feel we have a good lineup, and he kept everybody off balance. You have to tip your cap to him.”
While the Generals didn’t exactly crush the ball against a trio of Hiland hurlers, they did enough damage to post the four runs. The one guy who did have a day was Ridgewood third baseman Kolten Alexander, who delivered not one but two clutch two-out hits to provide the Generals with three monumental runs.
Hiland starter Cameron Miller sailed through the first two frames unscathed while the Hawks were able to nick Smith for a run in the second inning to take the lead. With one out Damien Kandel and Casey Kalman singled, and after Derek Burke drew a walk to load the bases, Tyler Kline grounded to short. Ridgewood’s attempt to turn two resulted in a bang-bang play at first, where Kline was ruled safe, and the Hawks had the lead.
It didn’t last long as the Generals struck for three runs in the top of the next inning. The bottom of the order did the damage when Nick Morton singled on an 0-2 pitch and nine-hole hitter Chase Minet drew a full-count walk. That brought a dangerous section of Ridgewood’s lineup to the plate with two on and no outs.
Kaden Smith and Koleton Smith both flew out to shallow left, but Memphis Cuttshall rifled a single to center to tie the game, and when Alexander got up 2-0 in the count, he sat on a fastball and drove it to the wall in left center to plate two more runs for a 3-1 Ridgewood lead.
“They’ve got a great lineup, and we told our pitchers coming in that we didn’t want to leave stuff up and out over the plate because they will drive it, and they did,” Dages said.
Ridgewood coach Chad Lahna said it was fitting for Alexander to put away the final out of the game because he has been a monster throughout the tournament run.
“He has come up big at the plate and on the mound in all four games,” Lahna said of Alexander. “That is our senior leadership. When you can score with two outs, it makes things a lot easier, and he was able to drive two balls, and we were able to add some runs.”
Those three runs would be all the talented Smith would need on the mound, although Hiland wouldn’t go away quietly.
Damien Kandel relieved Cameron Miller on the mound for Hiland, and both he and Smith posted easy innings in the fourth and fifth. Kandel would strand two in the sixth, and Hiland would inch to within a single run in the bottom of the inning.
Andy Miller led off by mashing a Smith offering to the wall in left center. After Ryan Hershberger’s fly out advanced Andy Miller up a base, Hiland got its run on a Cameron Miller sacrifice fly to right.
However, just as it had earlier, Ridgewood responded to a Hiland score by scoring itself, taking advantage of two Hiland errors to do so, and again it would be the bottom of the order that produced.
Morton hit a ball straight down into the plate that caromed a few feet out in front of home. Catcher Cameron Miller pounded after it, but in his haste he kicked it out toward the mound. Minet then grounded to third, but Cordell Miller’s throw was in the dirt, and Kalman couldn’t dig it out, putting runners on first and second.
On came Andy Miller to relieve Kandel, and he walked lead-off hitter Kaden Smith to load the bases with nobody out. A shallow fly out to center and an infield pop-out later had the Hawks poised to somehow escape without giving up a run. Instead, Alexander lashed a liner to center for a single to score Morton for the 4-2 lead.
Hiland would get a runner to second in the final at-bat, but Smith would induce a lazy pop out to Alexander at third off the bat of Kline, setting off a jubilant Generals’ celebration.
“That’s a tough group right there, one through nine, and Koleton kept them at bay,” Lahna said. “When they put balls in play, defensively we made plays, and that is what we ask our kids to do.”
Lahna said Smith worked pitches in and out, using the whole plate. By moving the ball around and using his off-speed stuff to shut down Hiland again, it was a masterful performance worthy of an effort that moves a team on to regional play.
Smith said that after the Generals’ struggles throughout the first half of the season, they were able to come together and play very well over the last half of the spring and into the tournament.
“A lot of people didn’t think we would make it this far and further, but we always felt we could make a run in the tournament, and that is what we’re doing,” Smith said.
Hiland, which is coming off a state title in 2016 and a runner-up crown last season, ends another fantastic season with a 25-4 overall record. While the district loss didn’t sit well with the Hawks, Dages said it was a great year for a group of players who had to wait a long time to get their chance to shine.
“There’s nothing to hang your head about, especially for the seniors,” Dages said. “They were excellent leaders on and off the field. They kept us together as a team when we struggled early on (Hiland started the year 1-2), and we turned it around. I can’t thank them enough, and I couldn’t ask for a better class my first year coaching here.”
Who knows? Maybe the Hawks would have been playing for another state title if they had not had to deal with their Kryptonite.