For a mid-season game that wasn’t a league contest and featured two teams from different divisions, the atmosphere surrounding Lehman Field on Saturday, April 14 was electric as visiting Toronto came to Berlin to square off with Hiland.
This one featured two of the finest small-school baseball programs in the state, and it certainly didn’t disappoint, playing out as exciting as everyone had hoped it would.
Hiland took an early lead. Toronto responded to take the lead, but the Hawks got the final say in a thrilling 5-3 win that featured a ton of good baseball.
— OhioSportsTicket.com (@OhioTicket) April 14, 2018
“That’s a signature win right there,” Hiland head coach Chris Dages said. “That is one of the best, if not the best, Div. IV program in the state of Ohio. This was just a fantastic game. I’d play games like this every day of the week. There’s a mutual respect between these two programs, and it is games like this that are going to make both of us better in the long run.”
Red Knights head coach Brian Perkins said that aside from a couple of games with big Div. I schools in Boardman and Hilliard, which they split, his team has experienced a whole lot of blowout wins. Therefore, playing in a tight battle in a game that felt like a tournament game was beneficial for all involved.
“We really love playing good, quality programs, and this rivalry has really been a fun one for us over the years,” Perkins said. “Win or lose, it is the only way you are going to get better. This is my 25th year in Toronto, and we have had some epic battles with Hiland over the years. We’ve won some. We’ve lost some, but you can always count on it being great baseball, and that is why we love getting them on the schedule.”
Toronto worked its way all the way to state last season, where it fell in the Div. IV state semifinals. Hiland had been Div. IV for decades, but two years ago it qualified for Div. III. This year the Hawks are Div. III by one male student, but neither coach is complaining about not seeing the other in the tournament, where they would have met in districts.
“Yeah, I think both of us are more than happy we don’t have to deal with each other in the tournament,” Perkins said.
Dages said avoiding the Red Knights in tournament play is OK with him, but he said that this game gave them a chance to see a top-notch pitcher that will be as good as they will see, which is good preparation for tournament play.
“He is a great pitcher,” Dages said of Toronto starter Nolan Clegg. “He is as good as we will face this season, so that should give us confidence moving forward that we can compete with a pitcher and a team of this kind of caliber.”
A pair of outstanding hurlers took the mound for their respective teams as Clegg and Hiland’s Cordell Miller squared off.
After Miller, who has been a revelation this season to date, sailed through the first, the Hawks greeted the Ohio State-bound Klegg by ripping him for four hits and two runs in the first frame.
With one out Andy Miller crushed a laser to left that hit the big green wall in left about 1 foot below the home-run line, settling instead for a double. With two outs Cameron Miller laced a single to left and took second on the throw home as Andy Miller raced across the plate. Moments later Cordell Miller helped himself by raking a shot to left for a hit and a 2-0 lead.
“I was pleased to see us come out aggressively,” Dages said of his Hawks. “I thought that put the pressure on them and helped loosen us up at the same time.”
Toronto tied the game in the third inning when Zach Gulczynski singled and Lucas Gulczynski hit a majestic drive over the wall in left almost exactly where Andy Miller’s ball hit the wall.
Hiland coughed up the lead in the fourth inning when third-baseman Ryan Hershberger threw wildly to first base, allowing Nick Sninchak to reach second, and the next batter, Cole Bodnar, reached on Andy Miller’s error at shortstop, which allowed Sninchak to race home.
VBB – Hiland’s Cam Miller strokes an RBI single to plate Michael Miller in the bottom of 5 to tie Toronto 3-3 heading to the sixth in Berlin. pic.twitter.com/RUfSzAy6uC
— OhioSportsTicket.com (@OhioTicket) April 14, 2018
Both pitcher’s dug deep, and the lead held until the bottom of the fifth when Michael Miller led off with a single, stole second and tied the game on Cameron Miller’s sharp single to center.
Cordell Miller worked around a walk in the top of the sixth, and Hiland came in and came up with two big runs.
Stevie Beachy walked, and Clegg, trying to pitch with a split fingernail, drilled Tyler Kline in the back. Jake Keenan came on for the Red Knights, and Derek Burke dropped down a beautiful sacrifice bunt to move the runners up. That turned into a large play when Michel Miller ripped Keenan’s first offering to him to center for a two-run single.
“We’ve really stressed the importance of getting bunts down and moving runners and sacrificing ourselves when we need to, and Derek did a great job of setting the table,” Dages said.
If Burke set it, Michael Miller cleaned it up.
“I was looking for something I could drive that would bring in both runs, and I hit it square,” Michael Miller said of the game-winner. “This was great playing a team this good. It is what we believe we will run into at some point in the tournament, so to come out here and compete and win the way we did is a nice confidence boost for us.”
Cordell Miller got a big strikeout to start the final inning, but a walk brought Dages to the mound, and he summoned the other Miller twin, Cameron, from behind home plate to try to finish off the Red Knights.
Lucas Gulczynski greeted him by dumping a soft liner into right field, but Cameron Miller then got an easy fly out for the second out. Clegg then shot a sharp grounder up the middle, but Andy Miller cruised to his left, gobbled it up and flipped to Michael Miller for the force to end the game.
“My goal was to pound the zone and keep it low to keep them in the ball park,” Cordell Miller said of limiting the impressive Red Knights lineup to just five hits while striking out seven. “I feel like I have so much more command this year than I did last year, and that has helped my confidence. I just tried to come out with a bulldog mentality today, just like I have all season, and it felt good to throw this well against a team this good.”