When the 2016 Hiland Hawks baseball team finished off a 7-1 state finals victory over the Waynedale Golden Bears, it seemed as though a team of destiny had finished off a magical run. One year later the Warren Champion Golden Flashes scored an early first-inning run and made it stand up to down top-ranked Hiland 1-0 in a game with many missed opportunities for the Hawks.
While it may have seemed to Hiland faithful that Waynedale should’ve been happy to have that state runner-up trophy sitting in their trophy case, when the dust settled in 2017, Hiland saw just how bitter of a pill a loss in the final game of the year can be. The Hawks left a staggering six runners in scoring position through the first five frames before midnight came in the seventh and their magical season came to a screeching halt.
Senior Mitch Massaro was on the mound for the Hawks, and after Hiland went in order in the top of the first, for the second straight game a Hiland starter would hit the lead-off batter, this time Champion’s Lucas Nasonti. Kyle Forrest sacrificed Nasonti to second, and he scored when catcher Michael Turner smoked a single up the middle to give Champion an early 1-0 lead.
It was unusual for boys from Berlin to trail, but nobody at Huntington Park would figure one run to be a high hill to climb for Hiland. But no one could foresee the mound of base runners coming that the Hawks would leave on base.
In the second Massaro blooped a hustle double to shallow center with two outs against Champion starter Andrew Russell, but Braden Mast got caught looking on an outside fastball. In the third a Michael Miller lead-off single and a Derek Miller walk got two on with nobody out, and a Chris Kline sacrifice moved them to second and third with one out. But Tyson Gingerich smashed a grounder to second with a drawn-in infield, and Russell retired Bryan Yoder on a check swing pop-up to first to keep the Hawks scoreless.
Meanwhile, Massaro had really settled in, and the only real threat the Golden Flashes could mount came in the second when Champion used a walk and a hit to get runners at the corners, but Massaro got out of it.
Hiland again had a golden opportunity in the fourth when Ryan Hershberger led off with a solid double down the left-field line and was sacrificed to third by Andy Miller. But sophomore Russell again dug deep, striking out Massaro and hitting Mast before striking out Michael Miller to escape that jam.
“I go back on myself,” Hiland’s Tom Gibson said. “When we had second and third with one out and Mitch was up, I was confident that he would put the ball in play, but he was called out on strikes. We maybe should’ve put the bunt down and squeezed the run in, but that’s 20/20 hindsight.”
But Gibson can’t take all the heat for what transpired as his Hawks, who had come through so many times before, didn’t get it done when it mattered this day.
“We took three untimely called third strikes with guys on base, and you can’t do that,” Gibson said. “But we’ve played well all year, and this is the first stinker we’ve had.”
But the Hawks still weren’t done.
In the fifth Hiland started a two-out rally when Gingerich and Yoder singled and Hershberger walked to load the bases. But Russell reached into his bag of tricks one more time and retired Andy Miller on a foul pop-up that almost skimmed the screen to retire the side as Russell and the Flashes danced back into the dugout.
“The thing that hurts the most is that these kids deserve better,” Gibson said. “I felt like we outplayed them. We just didn’t get that one hit at the right time. But that’s baseball. What are you going to do?”
Massaro threw an excellent game after the first inning, which saw the Golden Flashes do something the Hawks were unable to do this day but had done so many games before.
“That’s a great team, and I give Hiland all the credit in the world,” Champion head coach Rick Yauger said. “But we were able to execute early and get a run across, and when you play from in front, it helps you.”
And it helps you by putting added pressure on the opposition, pressure that escalated as the innings rolled on and the body count on the bases mounted.
“We knew we had a lot of traffic on the bases, but we kept a positive energy in the dugout, and our kids are never going to quit,” Yauger said. “They’ve been like that all year, and they’re phenomenal. They really are.”
When Hiland failed to create any kind of threat over the final two innings, Massaro finished his career with a disappointing 1-0 loss.
“Mitch is a gritty kid. He finds a way to get it done on the mound,” Gibson said. “He deserved better than a 1-0 loss. But it is what it is, and I take nothing away but all the great things that these kids have accomplished and the type of kids they are. In the end I admire Mitch, love Mitch. He’s a great kid.”
As for the rest of the Hawks, they took Gibson on a special ride.
“They know baseball, and they know what it’s about,” he said. “We’re not going to go over any of the things we didn’t do because they already know what those are. I’m just going to tell them how proud I am of them and what a great run they had. Not just this year, but think about last year and even two years ago. A lot of these guys were contributors on that 2015 team. They were 28-4, last year 30-2 with a title and this year 31-1. That’s a pretty good three-year run for these kids.”
And as the roles were reversed for this championship final, it was Hiland that would feel the emptiness of coming close but not close enough. But it would be Champion that seemed to be most ready to claim victory this year from the very first pitch.
“We weren’t going to let one game define our season,” Yauger said, “because we have a phenomenal team who’s had a phenomenal season. They’re going to fight until the end and play hard for 21 outs. We had a good workout this morning. They were loose and ready to go. We were the underdogs coming in. They were the defending state champs, undefeated number-one team in the state. We knew we had our hands full.”
This day another championship was just not meant to be for the Hawks, but this team has set the bar high for future teams to come.
“It’s not just this class. We’ve been good for awhile since 2008 when we got to state that first year and we proved we could do it,” Gibson said. “Our goal is never just to get here. Our goal is to win it. We’ve been able to get here a number of times, which is nice. Our standard is winning state championships. That’s what we strive and practice for.”
And the future is indeed bright as it was the young Hawks who came up big for Hiland throughout the weekend.
Sophomore Ryan Hershberger doubled and walked for Hiland, and junior Michael Miller singled twice as the Hawks outhit Champion six to four. Turner, who drove in the sole run, had two hits for the Golden Flashes.
Russell got the win, tossing seven complete innings, striking out eight and walking two, while Massaro went six innings for Hiland, striking out three and walking two.
“I feel bad for them, but they’re resilient,” Gibson said. “They understand what they’ve accomplished. It’s too bad that one first-inning run stood up. I never would’ve guessed that it would.”