COLUMBUS — Two great baseball programs.
Two great baseball coaching staffs.
Two proud traditions.
Yes, there’s no doubt that Saturday afternoon’s Division III, Region 11 Final bout between the Wheelersburg Pirates and the Berlin Hiland Hawks represent what’s truly great about the game of baseball.
So there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the game would live up to the hype that flooded the campus of Ohio Dominican University to take in a tremendous showdown between two of the best teams at the Division III realm.
And as it turned out, the contest may have exceeded the hype.
For seven full frames, Wheelersburg gave Division III’s No. 1-ranked unit all it wanted in a gritty affair that proved to be a battle of wills between the two ballclubs.
Ultimately, Kaden Coleman’s complete game performance on the mound, as well as six hits from the Pirates on the day, weren’t enough to lead Wheelersburg past Hiland as the Hawks ended the Pirates’ season with a 2-0 victory to advance to the OHSAA Division III State Final Four at Huntington Park in Columbus.
For Michael Estep, the result doesn’t take anything away from how the ballgame was played on both sides.
“We were able to make enough plays to keep it manageable, but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t meant to be,” Estep said. “It was a great battle between two teams that pride themselves on not making mistakes and doing the little things that it takes to win. It was going to be a battle to see who could impose their will on the other team.”
Over the first pair of innings, Kaden Coleman and Hiland’s Mitch Massaro wasted no time in proving why both hands are the aces of their respective staffs. Coleman allowed four hits over the first two innings of play, but used an excellent catch by second baseman Connor Mullins on a well-hit ball by Tyson Gingerich and a pair of infield forceouts to work out of trouble, while Massaro recovered from a balk to strand Jalen Miller at third base in the first inning and retired three consecutive Wheelersburg batters in the second frame following a leadoff single by Coleman.
However, in addition to his complete game performance, the duo of Coleman and Xander Carmichael proved to be too much for Hiland on the basepaths. The Hawks didn’t steal a base — because they didn’t even try to attempt such a feat against the two talented upperclassmen.
“You have to be able to do those kinds of things,” Estep said. “In the regional semifinal game (against Zane Trace), they had scatty kids in the lineup. As a result, they were able to take advantage in the running game and move guys around, and that makes the game easier on offense when you can do that. You don’t have to push people from station to station, bunt, or do those types of things. We really pride ourselves on doing that throughout the whole year. It’s a luxury to not only have Xander (Carmichael) back there catching, but pitchers that do a good job of giving him a shot to throw people out. Consequently, when you add those two things together, people don’t run on you very much.”
Unfortunately, the rock-solid play by Wheelersburg wasn’t even enough to keep Hiland off of the scoreboard.
In the top half of the third inning, Trey Carter lined a one-out single to left field, and as the ball dropped to the turf, it rolled away from Ryan Hershberger’s line in left. However, Hershberger recovered, fired a rocket of a ball to second base, and gunned Carter as the sophomore tried to take advantage of the misplay, and even though the Pirates recorded back-to-back singles off of the hands of Miller and Carmichael, a 1-3 groundout rendered Wheelersburg’s strong efforts to a moot point.
Hiland then wasted no time taking advantage of Hershberger’s strong play in the outfield in the bottom half of the third inning. A hit by pitch, along with a one-out walk and an error, loaded the bases for Massaro, who helped his own cause with a two-out single back up the middle of the diamond, which scored Chris Kline. While a catcher’s obstruction call actually helped the Pirates save a run in the frame, the Hawks were able to strike with the game’s first salvo thanks to Massaro’s base knock.
In the fourth inning, however, Cole Dyer nearly had a massive answer.
With one out in the top of the fourth, Dyer lifted a Massaro pitch to left center field, where it looked to be destined for the grass outside of the fence. However, the ball held up as it began to reach the warning track, and Derek Miller, as a result, was able to catch Dyer’s well-hit ball on the track.
Unfortunately, that proved to be huge as Hiland was able to manufacture a run across to add a run in the tight affair.
After a leadoff walk by Mike Miller, Derek Miller followed with a sacrifice bunt to move the designated hitter into scoring position. A wild pitch with one out then set the stage for Kline, who hit a deep sacrifice fly to left field to score Derek Miller while increasing Hiland’s lead to a 2-0 tally — a critical run, considering the circumstances.
“That’s all it takes,” Estep said. “It puts an extra run on the board, which takes our sacrifice bunt away in the seventh inning, and that’s huge in a game where both pitchers are going out and controlling the game, and both defenses are playing solid. It’s truly a game of inches. I know they talk about that in football, but one or two plays can change the course of a baseball game in a hurry.”
But even then, Wheelersburg didn’t quit fighting. With two out in the sixth inning, a passed ball on a swing-and-a-miss by Kaden Coleman allowed Dyer to come to the plate with a chance to do some damage.
And once again, Dyer put the Pirates’ faithful to their feet with another monster blast to left center field that was a near carbon-copy of the first ball that the junior hit. Unfortunately, it, too, died as it approached the track, and Derek Miller, once again, hauled the ball in to end the threat. Massaro then pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning to record the complete game performance and the victory.
“I could tell that it was kind of holding up a bit, similar to the one that Cole hit in the previous at-bat,” Estep said of Dyer’s sixth-inning shot to left center. “We were hoping that maybe he hooked it a little bit more, but that’s what happens when you get to tournament baseball. You move to a little bigger field than what you normally play on during the regular season, and some of those home runs turn into flyouts. We’ve been able to transition out of those things, and really, I don’t believe that we’ve been that type of team throughout the year. Guys hit some good top-half hit baseballs and things, and gave our offense a shot, but (Mitch Massaro) did a good job on the mound for Hiland, and they made the plays. The credit goes to Hiland.”
With the loss, Estep and the Wheelersburg baseball program will see seven seniors depart a program that has been highly successful over the past four seasons. Kaden Coleman, Kaleb Coleman, Cole Darnell, Brandon Denney, Nick Marvin, Alex Thompson, and J.J. Stamper graduate after living up to the standard that has been set by the senior classes before them, with four straight SOC II titles, four straight district titles and regional appearances, and two OHSAA State Final Four appearances in 2014 and 2015.
The group went 21-6 in 2017 — including a title-winning 13-1 mark in SOC II play — took home three victories combined over Adena and Zane Trace, and defeated Greenup County, 9-7, on May 8.
“Every senior class is always hard to replace,” Estep said. “I’m very proud of these guys. They’ve really grown from the time that we started working with them when they were Little Leaguers and things. We talked about that in the banquet the other day. That’s the nice part of it — seeing kids transform. At the end of the day, these seniors are part of four straight conference championships during their time, four straight district titles, and two trips to the state tournament. I’m super proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish and be a part of, and I’m excited to see what the next chapter holds in their lives.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7