The Division IV postseason has turned into a magical journey for Cincinnati Christian School’s baseball team.
The Cougars found themselves on an emotional high Thursday after making history with the program’s first-ever regional victory, leaving them one win away from the state tournament.
“Oh man, it’s fantastic,” junior pitcher Mitchell Smith said after he showed the way with his arm and his bat in a 6-1 regional semifinal triumph over Russia at Carleton Davidson Stadium. “It was a beautiful day, we showed up, and we were ready to play from the start. It was a great team effort.”
Junior first baseman Jacob Carroll, who contributed two hits and two RBIs, said it was a joyous experience.
“It’s wild,” he said. “I would never have imagined this starting freshman year with Coach (Curtus) Moak coming in as a new coach. It’s been great playing three years with him. To turn around a program the way he’s done it is just amazing. We’re keeping our eyes on state right now.”
Cincinnati Christian (16-8) will make the trip back to Springfield on Friday at 5 p.m. to play for the regional championship.
The Cougars will meet Fort Loramie, a 7-5 winner over defending state champion Minster in Thursday’s second semifinal. Moak said sophomore right-hander Alex Johnson will get the mound start for CCS.
“I think it works to our favor when we don’t even know the opponent,” Moak said. “You don’t overthink things. You just play the game.
“People have no idea what to expect from us. We’re young. We’ve never made it this far before. I just hope we’re not sapped emotionally. I hope my young guys still have something left in the tank to go (Friday), and I think they will.”
CCS took advantage of an awful start by Russia (19-10), last year’s state runner-up, to grab a 6-0 lead in its first two at-bats. The Raiders had four errors in the first two innings and five overall.
The Cougars try to put the ball in play and use their speed to force opponents into mistakes. That strategy worked like a charm Thursday.
Russia coach Kevin Phlipot said he didn’t get the sense before the game that his players were somehow out of sync.
“Not at all. It was just kind of a little snowball action right there,” Phlipot said. “One bad thing happened and then another, and then after that we might have tightened up a little bit because it happened so fast.”
Cincinnati Christian put up three runs in each of the first two innings. The Cougars weren’t exactly spraying lasers all over the field, though Smith did start the game by lining a single to right field.
“The kids did everything we asked them to do,” Moak said. “We played some small ball, made contact and forced them to make plays, which they didn’t do early on. When you get runners on third base, you force the middle infielders to come in closer to home plate, so it doesn’t take a hard-hit ball to make them dive or leave their feet. A ball can squeeze through the infield easier because they’re not playing back.”
Lefty Daniel Kearns started on the mound for the Raiders and faced 11 batters. He couldn’t record an out in the second inning before righty Jack Dapore came on in relief.
The Cougars didn’t fare very well against Dapore, who threw six scoreless innings and struck out eight. But Russia would only score once — on an RBI single by Kearns in the second inning — and stranded eight runners.
“The first couple times they got guys on base, I got a little nervous,” Carroll said. “But Mitchell killed it. He held strong even with people on base. And I think we played great defense when it mattered.”
Moak said he never felt comfortable because Russia “is a gritty team with experience. I knew things could flip-flop in a heartbeat. But Mitchell was on. He threw all three pitches for strikes, and he was battling. He was being the leader he’s been all year.”
Smith wasn’t far from reaching the game limit of 125 pitches. The right-hander had three strikeouts and three walks in his six-hitter.
The Raiders got singles from Mason Dapore and Will Sherman in the seventh before Hunter Cohee lifted a game-ending fly ball to CCS left fielder Noah Jordan.
“It was hot, but I pitch better when it’s warm,” Smith said. “Once you have a little bit of insurance, you feel more comfortable going through it. I know I’ve got seven guys behind me and one behind the plate that are going to help me out.”
Smith was 3-for-4 at the plate and scored twice. Alex Bertram had two hits and an RBI for Cincinnati Christian, and Cody Anderson also drove in a run.
“After those first two innings, it was our game to be had, but unfortunately those six runs were just too much for us to overcome,” Phlipot said. “I thought we just needed to catch one break and we could put a 2- or 3-spot on there, but they made plays. The shortstop was real smooth and made a couple nice plays.”
Moak said the game’s final out gave him a feeling of relief.
“You finally take that deep breath you’ve been wanting to take knowing that your guys have executed, played well and made history for the school and the community,” he said.
Fort Loramie has a 24-6 record and a tradition of postseason success. The Redskins have been to the Final Four five times and won state championships in 2007 and 2010.
Of course, the Cougars aren’t paying attention to such things. They have a “Why not us?” mentality when they think about making it to Huntington Park in Columbus.
“I don’t see why not,” Smith said. “We’re playing our best baseball right now all the way through the lineup.”
Added Carroll, “Who cares if we have five freshmen starting? We’ve done it this far. We can keep going.”
Cincinnati Christian 330-000-0—6-8-1
WP – Mitchell Smith (10-1); LP – Daniel Kearns (7-4). Records: C 16-8, R 19-10