COLUMBUS — Aaron Hopper’s birthday seems to provide magic to the very unit that he contributes to — no matter where he’s been over the course of his career.
In 2011 and 2012, Hopper won two consecutive NCAA Division III Championships at Marietta College the same week of his birthday.
Now, the 2009 Wheelersburg graduate and second-year skipper has accomplished a feat that will definitely put the 28-year old as one of the fastest-rising stars of the head coaching profession, in the game of baseball, across the state — if that title hadn’t already been earned before.
Behind a complete game, nine-strikeout performance from Ethan Lauder and excellent production from its No. 5 through No. 9 hitters in the batting order, which includes Nathan McCormick, Reid Shultz, Payton Davis, Bailey Rowe, and Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis, Hopper and the Minford Falcons’ baseball program, for the first time in school history, obtained a state final berth in the sport by defeating the West Lafayette Ridgewood Generals’ baseball program, 4-1, in a Division III, Region 11 Final that was held at Bill Davis Stadium on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus.
And following the contest, it was clear that his latest accomplishment ranks right up there with the two NCAA Division III National Championships that Hopper won as an undergraduate student and a student-athlete at Marietta.
“There’s been a few things that’s happened on my birthday that have been pretty good,” Hopper said. “A couple of days after my birthday — two years in a row — I was a part of two national championship-winning teams (at NCAA Division III Marietta College in 2011 and 2012), and this victory today ranks right up there with them. It’s a special group. They play together, and you just really can’t ask for anything more out of a baseball team than playing together. That’s exactly what happened today. It was good, good team baseball — some of the best team baseball that we’ve played for a couple of weeks.”
Initially, however, Minford faced arguably its most pressure-packed situation of the 2018 season in the top half of the first inning. Back-to-back-to-back singles by Koleten Smith, Memphis Cutshall, and Kolton Alexander ultimately allowed West Lafayette Ridgewood to load the bases on the SOC II and Division III, Chillicothe I District Champions.
But in his latest display of poise, starting hand Ethan Lauder shut the door on what was a golden opportunity for Ridgewood.
With one down in the frame, Lauder completely worked his way out of imminent danger by striking out Zach Wright and forcing Connor Kunze to fly out innocently to center field to end a major threat to Minford’s historic run and keep the Falcons in control.
“I know that he (Lauder) threw a lot of pitches through the first two or three innings,” Hopper said. “I believe that he was up to around 40 or 50 pitches through three innings, and luckily, he was able to get a couple of quick outs to be able to go the distance. We expected him to continue to battle, because he’s done that all year. Elijah did that (on Thursday) for us, and all season long, we’ve gotten that out of both of them. The conditioning and the preparation that they have put into it is the reason why they’re able to go seven full innings nearly every outing.”
Lauder’s efforts on Saturday evening, however, were especially huge, especially considering that Minford was able to turn its pitching and defensive prowess into positive momentum from an offensive standpoint almost immediately following the huge hold.
In the top of the second frame, Shultz was hit by a pitch with one out, and with two gone, Rowe’s well-hit ball to right field moved Shultz over to third base. A crucial passed ball with two gone, plus a great read by Shultz on the passed ball, allowed the utility player to come on home as the Falcons ultimately took a 1-0 advantage.
While Ridgewood quickly answered Minford’s opening salvo with a run of its own following a Nick Morton double to left center field and a single to right field by Kaden Smith, Lauder worked around the minor damage by striking out Jarett Slusher, Chase Minet, and Koleten Smith in the frame to allow the Falcons to keep the momentum.
“We just did the little things,” Hopper said. “We hit the ball on the ground, played really good defense, and got an excellent, excellent outing on the mound. It was fantastic to watch and was just a great, great effort by everybody involved.”
After a quiet third frame, Minford responded once again with a huge burst in the top half of the fourth inning as McCormick doubled to right center field with one gone in the stanza.
When Shultz, the next batter in the Minford order, followed with his single back up the middle of the diamond and advanced to second on the throw home that kept McCormick from advancing, Payton Davis — the Falcons’ lone senior starter — followed with yet another huge base hit.
The senior’s second go-ahead RBI base knock of the postseason scored McCormick, and a beautiful and perfectly executed sacrifice bunt by Rowe, which scored Shultz, allowed Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis to shoot a hard-hit ball back up the middle for another RBI base knock that scored Davis from second base. The result, you ask? A 4-1 Minford lead.
And again, the bottom of the order — who combined to go 7-for-12 with a double, a hit by pitch, three RBI, and four runs scored — proved to be absolutely huge in the contest.
“A lot of times, you have a lot of highs, and you fall off late in the season or you start slow and you catch fire late in the season,” Hopper said. “Luckily, we’ve been hitting the ball really well all year, whether it was the top half at the beginning of the year or the bottom half as of late. We just try to get our top three guys on, and we know that from three-through-nine, we can produce a couple of runs in there somewhere.”
From there, Lauder continued to stay in his groove. The junior hit Morton with a pitch in the bottom half of the fourth inning and allowed a single to Minet with two gone in the bottom half of the fourth, but followed up that small dose of adversity with — you guessed it, another strikeout. Ridgewood ultimately left eight batters on base during the contest as Lauder struck out nine and allowed just four hits after the second inning of play en route to another clutch performance. During that span, the junior faced just three above the minimum after the second frame en route to leading his troops to victory.
“I don’t know,” Hopper said of how his team has continued to be so resilient despite its youth in age. “I don’t have the answer to why we play out of our age, but these guys definitely are a mature group, and they do not give up. I don’t know what to say. It’s really special for them because of the work that they’ve put in. This is the reason why we’re here, because we’ve worked hard, and they deserve it. They really do.”
With the victory, Minford (24-2) will play Coldwater (25-6) in the Division III OHSAA State Semifinals on Thursday, May 31 at 4 p.m. The Falcons finished the season as the No. 12-ranked team in the final Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association (OHSBCA) Poll, while Coldwater was pegged as the No. 6 unit in that same post.
However, as everybody knows by now, rankings will mean absolutely nothing when Minford visits the Huntington Park grounds on Thursday — and possibly Saturday, too.
“We know that we will have our hands full, just like we have from the district semifinals to now,” Hopper said. “Coldwater’s a great team, especially from a pitching and defensive standpoint. They don’t make very many mistakes. I’m sure Coldwater is going to bring it. They’re there at this stage every year.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT