Hiland’s high hopes and a season that saw the Hawks end up at number one in the state Div. IV polls came crashing down around them in a far-too-quick ending to a brilliant season.
Toronto pitcher and Ohio State University-bound shortstop Nate Karaffa overcame a groin injury, throwing just his third game of the season, but his stuff was downright nasty, and his two-run triple helped the Scarlet Knights (22-5) defeat the Hawks (22-4) 4-0.
What surprised many in this meeting of the district’s top-two teams in just the second round was that Toronto head coach Brian Perkins decided to jump into top-seeded Hiland’s side of the bracket.
The veteran coach has had many run-ins with Hiland, and he knew he wanted his top pitcher available to face Hiland. Thus doing exactly what he did made perfect sense.
All his players had to do was go out and prove him right, which they did, making the move look absolutely genius.
“We knew coming in that Hiland has great tradition,” Perkins said. “I have been at Toronto for 26 years, and we have played them multiple times throughout the years. We don’t just want to get to the final. We want our best chance to have our shot at winning, and we knew Hiland was the top-ranked team, and if we were going to beat them, we wanted to have our shot in the first game, and it worked out for us.”
Hiland head coach Chris Dages said Karaffa was simply too good on this night, and sometimes you simply have to tip your cap to the guy on the mound.
“He throws hard, and he’s got a great breaking ball,” Dages said of Karaffa. “We knew that coming into the game. We just weren’t aggressive enough on his fastballs. We let a lot go by and dug ourselves into a hole.”
Going deep into the count on a number of hitters, Karaffa was forced to throw 115 pitches, but despite Hiland putting runners in scoring position in four of the first five innings, he was able to record one huge punch-out after another when he absolutely had to have one to keep the slugging Hiland team off the scoreboard.
“We’ve kind of struggled with having that timely hit all year, and we talked about that,” Dages said. “We had a lot of chances and had runners on. We just couldn’t come through with that hit to plate some guys. It got us today.”
Hiland starter Ryan Hershberger gave up a two-out double to Karaffa in the first but got his second strike-out of the inning to escape damage.
Tyler Kline led off Hiland’s half of the inning with an infield single, and with one out Karaffa hit Andy Miller. Casey Kalman’s ground out to first moved both runners up, and Drew Yoder worked a full-count walk to load the bases, but Karaffa got Kevin Borntrager swinging to end the scoreless first frame.
Hershberger allowed a lead-off single to Kobe Herrick to start the second, and he got as far as third before Hershberger snuffed out that rally, and Karaffa struck out the side around a walk to Brett Miller in the bottom.
The Scarlet Knights finally hit Hershberger in the third, literally and figuratively. With one out Hershberger issued a walk. Then Lucas Guiczinski lashed a line-drive single that drilled Hershberger in the lower right leg and ricocheted to short for a single. Karaffa then drove an 0-2 Hershberger offering to the wall in deep center for a triple. After a long battle Nick Sninchak delivered a rope to left for a single that gave Toronto a 3-0 lead.
“Hersh did a great job,” Dages said of his starting pitcher, who suffered his first loss on the season. “He had two balls that got away from him, and they jumped on him. Other than those two pitches, he did great.”
Hiland came right back and threatened again. Hershberger hammered a single through the hole at short, and Andy Miller drew a walk, leading to a Kalman sacrifice bunt. Yoder then hit a hard one-hopper that bounced high over Karaffa’s head, but the athletic pitcher leaped and snagged it, looked Hershberger back, and threw out Yoder at first. He then struck out Borntrager on three pitches to end the threat.
Both pitchers breezed through the fourth inning, and Hershberger struck out two in a strong fifth that ended on a sensational diving play from Kline in center. In the bottom Hiland again put a runner in scoring position when Andy Miller reached on a bunt single and Karaffa’s throw to first sailed into foul territory, allowing him to advance to second with one out. However, Kalman’s soft liner to first and Yoder’s strike-out failed to get Miller home, and the score remained 3-0.
“Nate got out of some big jams early,” Perkins said of Karaffa. “He’s a senior, and he gutted it up in some big situations. Guys played defense behind him as well. It was a total team effort.”
Andy Miller came on in relief for Hershberger and breezed through the sixth with two strike-outs, but Karaffa matched that effort, and Hiland was down to its final at-bat.
But before that came, Toronto would score an insurance run on Zac Berger’s home run to right field that disappeared deep into the woods on a ball that was leaving the yard the moment it left the bat.
“We pulled them in right before the seventh,” Perkins said. “It was the only time we pulled them in, and said, ‘We need one more, one more.’ Berg obviously came up with a big one. That was the one run, and any time you’re playing a good team like Hiland, you know you’ve got to get as many as you can.”
Miller would then get two quick strike-outs and a ground out, leaving Hiland needing a small miracle to stay alive. With two outs Hershberger laced a single to left, but Andy Miller’s ground out back to the mound would end Hiland’s high hopes to make a deep tournament run.
“It’s nothing we did; they were better today,” Dages said. “If we play them10 times, who knows what would happen? We made the plays in the field we needed to make. It just wasn’t there at the plate. [Karaffa] is without a doubt the best pitcher we have faced this year.”
Karaffa went the distance, allowing just four hits while striking out a dozen and walking three. Hershberger went five innings, allowing the three earned runs on five hits, walking a pair and striking out five.
Miller finished with four strike-outs in two innings of work, allowing the home run as his only black mark. Hershberger added two hits in his final game for the Hawks while Karaffa was the only Scarlet Knight to collect two hits.