LUCASVILLE — This weekend anyway, there will be more than one Tribe taking hold — and planting fort — in northeast Ohio.
That’s because the Valley Indians are making their way northward, and onward and upward, to the coveted Division IV baseball state tournament — a promised land they haven’t been to since the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s.
But times have changed, and so have some fortunes, as these Indians are the first club in four-and-a-half decades to compete amongst the Final Four from the smallest baseball schools in the entire state.
To the average and non-descript fan, that can seem overwhelming.
Valley coach Nolan Crabtree, prior to Tuesday’s team practice on The Reservation, admitted as much —but said since Saturday when the Indians defeated Hiland for the Region 15 championship it’s all been in a positive way.
“The amount of phone calls, texts, messages on social media we’ve gotten and I’ve gotten personally from coaches and people all across the state have been very overwhelming, but it’s been great. The kids have just been on cloud nine, man. It was a very surreal weekend, but it was awesome,” said Crabtree. “It’s been a whirlwind, but very thankful for it and wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Crabtree’s players certainly concurred.
“It’s unbelievable. I’ve never felt something like this,” said senior shortstop Andrew Andronis. “To be going to state is the most exciting thing I’ve ever felt. Being a part of this and having our names a part of this is huge for us.”
“I’m speechless with it to be honest,” added fellow senior Breckon Williams. “We just need to keep playing like we’ve been playing. Play as a team, have good communication and we’ll be alright.”
“To get all the way here is special to say the least,” said sophomore pitcher George Arnett. “As long as we keep grinding it out, I’m excited to see what we can do.”
And, what the Indians will do first and foremost on Saturday is play their state semifinal tilt — at 10 a.m. inside Akron’s impressive-looking Canal Park, which first hosted the OHSAA state baseball tournament two years ago.
Valley, with a record of 20-11, will face the 23-8 Lincolnview Lancers — as the Indians are appearing in their first state semifinal since 1975 and 1977, as that ‘75 squad captured the state championship.
These Indians are also the third Scioto County “Class A/small school” regional champion since 1977 —as Green gained the crown in 1986 followed by Notre Dame in 1992.
The Indians also appeared in the state semifinals in back-to-back seasons of 1965 and 1966.
But although history is nice, and should be recognized and appreciated, there’s nothing like the here and now —and Valley is confident about its chances come Saturday morning to play into Sunday.
The Indians and Lancers were originally set to play on Friday, but word was received on Wednesday that anticipated inclement weather in the Akron area has pushed back the entire tournament schedule by one day.
“We talked last night (Monday) and we’ve had this same talk for two weeks now, but don’t let the districts (tournament) be the end of it. Last week, we said don’t let the regionals be the end of it. We’re this close, and these opportunities don’t come around every day. We want to make the most of it,” explained Crabtree. “They (Indians) are ready to go. They are excited, but they are extremely confident right now.”
Defeating a traditional state powerhouse like Hiland, which most observers probably considered the favorite for the Region 15 championship, only exudes that confidence Crabtree commented upon.
“When you knock off a program that is well thought of statewide like Hiland is, that sets a tone for how your boys think. They understand that sort of thing,” said the coach. “They know what’s ahead of them and I think they are ready for it.”
Prior to the 5-2 triumph over Hiland, the Indians methodically marched through May by defeating Fairfield 10-0 for the sectional championship, before 6-1 and 7-1 wins over Ironton St. Joseph and Huntington in the district tournament.
Last Friday, following Thursday’s rainout, Valley blanked Paint Valley and pitcher Brock Blanton 2-0 in the Region 15 semifinals.
The Indians have been dominant, defensively especially, and either the ace Arnett or fellow sophomore and second starter Carter Nickel is simply handcuffing opposing offenses.
Both of those runs by Hiland off Nickel were earned, as Arnett is expected to get the start against the Lancers — opposite Ohio State signee and Division IV state Player of the Year Landon Price.
Arnett is actually 9-5 on the season — but given the gauntlet that the Indians run through in the rugged Southern Ohio Conference Division II, it’s indeed an impressive mark.
“With this being my first season, I think it might have honestly helped me. All of the exciting stuff and all these stages are completely new to me. So maybe I don’t get nervous like I should,” said Arnett. “It’s really helped me in just staying calm, keeping my composure and coming out and throwing and doing what I’ve done all season.”
Of his five losses, all five are close contests against the top three SOC II teams —including two against Division II Waverly, a 3-0 setback against Division III regional semifinalist Wheelersburg, and two extra-inning defeats against the outright division champion and Division III regional runner-up Minford.
“George has just been phenomenal all year. He has control of four pitches, he does what we wants out there. He is prepared, he is methodical,” said Crabtree. “The effort that we got from him on Friday (vs. Paint Valley in the regional semifinal) is what we’ve come to expect from George. Lots of breaking balls and excellent command. That’s what George brings every time out.”
That’s what Arnett now needs to bring come Saturday — and keep the Lancers in likely a low-scoring affair of say a 1-0 or 2-1 or 3-2 final.
After all, the Indians are accustomed to winning with limiting the opposition to two, one or even no runs.
“I’m pretty confident in our pitching staff and our defense too. Our team ERA I think is 1.92 on the season. I feel like teams have to score against us. If they can’t score, they can’t win,” said Crabtree. “We know it’s going to be a tight and probably low-scoring game and we wouldn’t expect anything less at this level. But I’m happy with what we have, and I think we’re going to go up there and compete for seven innings and hopefully come out on top.”
Crabtree said the stronghold SOC II has more than prepped his Indians for facing Division IV tournament teams —and pitchers like Price.
In the SOC II alone, and sometimes twice, Valley — with few returning starters from the 2019 team — has seen the likes of Minford’s Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis, Waverly’s Derek Eblin, Wheelersburg’s Ethan Ison, Northwest’s Dakota Secrest and South Webster’s Robert Martin.
Vogelsong-Lewis will play his collegiate baseball at Division I Marshall University.
“It’s taken us a little while. Not that we’ve played bad, but we’ve had some close and tough losses to really good teams. But every time I thought about that, for the most part of the season, I’ve had two or three kids that have ever had varsity starts. Everybody else, they were either sophomores or had never played varsity baseball. It’s just shown that they’ve worked and grown with it, gotten better each time out and really bought into what we’re doing,” said Crabtree. “When you go through our league from top to bottom, the arms that we face are as good as it gets. I would put our league up with anybody across the state. To be able to play high-level competition and see high-level pitching really prepares you. But I want us prepared. If we take a couple lumps during the season, then we do that. But it really pays off in the end when you get to the tournament and you’re used to playing high-level competition and being in close and intense games. Facing those teams and those pitchers, to prepare us for this week, it’s a big deal. Our kids are not intimidated by it.”
“With us playing our SOC II, it’s been really tough completion this year. A lot of those teams went really far in the tournament,” he said. “By us dropping down to Division IV, I think that has helped us the entire tournament and the style of play that we had to get acquainted to.”
Now, the Indians get acquainted with Canal Park —and re-acquainted with facing a top-flight flamethrower.
But Valley seems to welcome these challenges, and believes the statewide stage in Akron is not too big at all for such a small school.
“Obviously, a kid that signs with a program like Ohio State obviously has some talent. We’re likely going to face him (Price). They (Lancers) are very excited and are going to be ready to play, but I’m just confident in our kids right now,” said Crabtree. “I think we’re going to go up there, really compete and give them a great game. The setting is big and exciting, but we still have to go out, throw strikes, field the ball and put the ball in play. But it’s a great time to be an Indian and these kids are eating it up and having the time of their lives.”
The winner will face the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal —between Fort Loramie and Warren JFK.
The Division IV state championship bout will now take place on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved