Over the course of the 2018 season, the Minford magic has been truly special.
Even with four seniors departing from last year’s unit, the baseball program was expected to be a prime contender in the SOC II race. And they were, as proven by their SOC II title.
The success that the Falcons have had throughout the year, and the way that they have gone about said success, however, has been the truly incredible part to watch — from the exciting one-run walkoffs over Wheelersburg, Waverly, and Crooksville to the way that Minford handled its business against Rock Hill, Valley, and West Lafayette Ridgewood.
Now, Minford will face a program who is known for a similar makeup — Coldwater. The Falcons and Cavaliers, both hit-and-run units who play a crisp defensive style, will square off on Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. for the right to move on to the OHSAA Division III State Championship Game.
And winning that matchup, according to second-year head coach Aaron Hopper, will be about staying true to its own mantra.
Coldwater, who enters the contest with a 26-6 overall record, has six of its nine everyday players hitting at least .289 or better, with three-hole hitting second baseman Jake Wenning leading the unit in batting average (.408) and RBI (29), and leadoff-hitting first baseman Austin Riethman (.352 average, seven doubles, 23 walks, 37 runs scored), along with cleanup-hitting third baseman Nathan Grunden (.341 average, 24 RBI, 23 runs scored) heading the charge. Sam Broering, a shortstop who hits .333 and has driven in 15 RBI while scoring 27 runs of his own from the two-hole, is also a threat.
On the basepaths, the Cavaliers are just as efficient. Riethman, Grunden, Broering, and five-hole hitter Jack Muhlenkamp, a center fielder, have each stolen 15 or more bases for a unit that has collected 113 swipes in 127 attempts in 2018.
“I’ve seen a couple of Coldwater’s games this season, and they play a pretty similar brand of baseball,” Hopper said. “They like to steal and they like to hit and run. They’re not going to hit a lot of pitches out of the ballpark, but they’re going to pitch and play defense. It’s going to be a battle between the pitching staffs and the defensive units behind said pitching staffs on Thursday. We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year long, and that is playing our brand of baseball.”
However, seeing a speedy lineup, and a lineup that can hit the cover off of the baseball, is nothing that star pitchers Ethan Lauder or Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis haven’t seen before.
As a matter of fact, the duo — who both serve as excellent control pitchers — have been poised in the biggest of moments, as the pair have combined to strand 17 runners on base in victories over Valley and West Lafayette Ridgewood. The coaching staff is leaning toward Vogelsong-Lewis, the lone freshman in the lineup, but Hopper knows that Coldwater will have to earn its runs no matter who takes to the hill for Minford when Thursday’s contest gets underway.
“We’re leaning toward Elijah right now,” Hopper said. “We’re still trying to figure those things out as we move into the day before the game, but we know that whoever gets the ball (to start the game) on Thursday will produce. They both have similar makeup and are similar across the board from how they pitch to their overall stats. The only difference is that one guy’s a lefthander and the other is a right-handed pitcher. They’ve done a great job all year long for us, so we’re looking for either one to put together the same type of performance (on Thursday).”
In addition to the excellent hands that Minford has at its disposal on the mound, the defense has also proven to be stellar throughout the postseason. As a whole, the Falcons have committed just one official error — an infield boot with two outs in the seventh frame against Rock Hill — since the beginning of district play on May 17.
Much of that work on the defensive side of the coin has to be credited, in part, to the leadership that Payton Davis has brought to the unit. Davis, the lone senior starter in Minford’s lineup, has shown off a potent glove at first base throughout the postseason — including a back-handed tag on a wide throw to nab Andrew Andronis as the freshman sprinted down the line.
“Payton started off a little bit slow at the beginning of the season, but his play at the back half of the year has been more indicative of the amount of work that he’s put in,” Hopper said. “The work that he’s put in has allowed him to get to this point where he’s starting to swing the bat really well, and he’s seen a lot of pitching, so that always helps. He’s a great leader by example. He’s not going to be too, too vocal, but he will definitely do the things that he is supposed to do, he’ll do them to the best of his ability, and he’ll do them right. That’s what we need in a senior, and a lead-by-example guy, is an individual who does things right, show guys what it means to work hard, and things like that, and he’s been a pleasure to work with and watch play here late in the season.”
Offensively, Minford will have another tough test, especially considering that Cole Frilling, Brad Giere, and Ross Weigel are a combined 19-4 on the mound and all boast ERA’s under 1.6, at 1.4, 1.53, and 1.24, respectively. Giere and Weigel, alone, are a combined 12-0, and Giere, along with Wenning, Broering, and Seth Miller are a perfect 10-for-10 in their save opportunities.
However, the Falcons, as they have proven all season long, are a very resilient bunch.
Brayden Davis (.341, 18 walks), Darius Jordan (.375, three doubles, 27 RBI), Reid Shultz, Bailey Rowe (.338) and Vogelsong-Lewis (.360, seven doubles, 20 RBI) — the latter of whom had the game-winning walkoff single in the bottom of the seventh inning against Wheelersburg on April 13 — comprise an excellent set of guys who have used their smarts to produce runs regardless of the season, as the unit’s 83 steals in 93 attempts suggest. Lauder (.353, seven doubles, 30 RBI), along with three-hole hitting slugger Luke Lindamood (.333, home run, 19 walks, nine doubles, 36 RBI), have been critical in situations where runners have set the table for the pair to produce RBI. And Nathan McCormick, along with the elder Davis, have produced rally-starting hits or, in the case of Davis’ game-winning RBI single against Crooksville, hits that have KO’ed their fellow opponents.
“It’s come in phases,” Hopper said. “At the beginning of the year, our top of the lineup guys were swinging the bats really well, and it’s easy to be confident and happy whenever you’re swinging the bats well. We’ve seen a bit of maturity out of that group, because those guys that were swinging the bats really well at the beginning of the season aren’t as hot right now as they were. It’s easy to get down on yourself and get frustrated when you’re not necessarily swinging as well as you would like, but those guys have been positive and haven’t gotten down on themselves too much. On the other side of it, the bottom half of the lineup never gave up, either. When they weren’t hitting well at the beginning of the season, they could’ve packed it in and said, ‘Well, you know, I’m not hitting that well this year. I’m going to just let the year play out the way that it does.’ They continued to work throughout the season, and that work is starting to pay off for them.”
In fact, it already has. The school’s very first Final Four berth is the only thing that one needs to know that the hard work and unselfishness has, indeed, paid off.
However, there’s more work left to be done — and part of that work, according to Hopper, means not getting caught up in the weight of the situations that will arise in the coming hours, and hopefully, days.
“We want to play our brand of baseball and not get too caught up in the moment,” Hopper said. “In my junior year of high school, when I played for Wheelersburg, we got caught up in the moment a little bit too much, and we had a bad first inning (against Hamilton Badin, 2008, 7-2 loss in D-III Final Four) that led to a loss. If we didn’t have that bad first inning, it may have been a little bit different ballgame. We did a really good job of that when we played at Ohio State last Friday. It was a different setting and not a lot of kids had even been to (Bill Davis Stadium) before, let alone play on the field there. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and the atmosphere, and forget what the task at hand is. I believe that we have to do the same thing on Thursday. We need to worry about us and what we are doing, and not worry about what our opponent does.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT