Thirteen miles separate Russia High School and Minster High School in northwest Ohio. State routes 66, 47 and 112 connect them — and now so does one baseball.
On June 3 at Huntington Park in Columbus, Russia and Minster played in the Division IV state championship final. Minster won 2-1 when senior Jon Niemeyer laced a single down the line in left.
Russia left fielder Trenton Monnin fielded the ball and relayed it to shortstop Dion Puthoff as Minster's Jared Huelsman raced home with the winning run in the bottom of the seventh. There was no chance to make a play at the plate. Puthoff kept the ball as Minster celebrated its third title in seven years.
PHOTOS: Russia vs. Minster
The story might have ended there. On the bus ride home, Puthoff joked with teammates about whether he should burn the ball. That would be one way to soothe the pain. In the end, however, after talking with his brother and sister, Puthoff put his disappointment behind him and decided to not only spare the ball's life but to preserve it for a lifetime.
On Thursday, Puthoff called Niemeyer's coach, Mike Wiss, to find out if Minster had held its postseason banquet. When he heard that had already happened, he called a friend who knew Niemeyer to find out where he lived. Then Puthoff drove 15 miles to Niemeyer's home to hand deliver the ball and a letter.
"Jon, I picked this up at the end of the game as something to remember my experience by," Puthoff wrote. "After thinking about it, I realized it would mean a lot more to you to have your game-winning hit ball. You played a great game and I want you to have it. Congrats on a great season and a great career."
Niemeyer wasn't home when Puthoff arrived. Alyssa Niemeyer, Jon's sister, answered the door and accepted the box with the ball and the letter.
Bryan Niemeyer, Jon's dad, didn't hear about the ball until Saturday. That's when he posted a photo of the ball and letter to Twitter. As of Monday afternoon, it had been shared on Twitter 187 times and received 680 likes.
"I thought it was worthy of some sort of notoriety," Bryan said. "I was very impressed by Dion's gesture. It was pretty cool showing what sportsmanship and high school sports are all about. That was a tough way to lose a game, a loss on a walk-off hit. That was pretty big of him."
Jon didn't think about getting the ball after the game. It wasn't until he had it that he realized what it meant to him.
"Honestly, I was just surprised he drove all the way to my house to give me the ball," said Jon, who plans to study construction management at Columbus State in the fall. "I hope to see him sometime soon so I can thank him."
Russia coach Kevin Phlipot wasn't surprised to hear of Puthoff's gesture.
"I texted him earlier this morning to tell him how proud I was of him," Phlipot said Monday. "If you knew him, that's in his character. He comes from a great family. His parents did a heck of a job."
Time has helped Russia overcome its disappointment of falling short of its first state championship since 1971. The Raiders finished 24-7 and made their first final four appearance since 1975.
"Right after the game, we were upset about it," Puthoff said. "But we're proud of what we did."
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