Metro Athletic Conference baseball fans will be in heaven this week when four high school heavyweights go toe-to-toe at Cene Park.
Poland, Struthers, Niles and Canfield -- seeded in that order -- have qualified for the Division II district semifinals and will renew their MAC rivalries on the tournament stage.
The games -- Poland vs. Canfield, Struthers vs. Niles -- are scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Cene Park, unless poor weather decides to interfere.
Defending champion: Ironically, it's the final seed, Canfield, that has won the past three district crowns. Now, the others are hungry and ready to gain a piece of the Cardinals' baseball tradition.
Top-seeded Poland has already beaten Canfield twice this season and will be looking for another win when the teams meet on Field 1.
Meanwhile, on Field 2, Struthers will go for its third straight victory of the season over Niles.
"We have one of the best baseball conferences in Ohio from top to bottom on strength of teams," said Canfield coach Lee Frey, in his final season before taking over as athletic director for Dick Weiss.
"Every game is pretty much a rivalry."
Niles coach T.C. Guarnieri said, "I know the Steel Valley has Boardman, Ursuline, Mooney and Harding, but team-for-team the MAC conference is the toughest conference in the area."
Take this season's district semifinalists, for example.
Bulldogs' bite: Poland has thrived on the pitching of left-hander Jeff Nastase, John Hay and Cole Budinsky and the balance of a dangerous batting order. (Nastase is recovering after being hit by a pitch Monday.)
"Poland is the best team in the conference player-for-player," Guarnieri said. "They have the best catcher in the area in Shane Davis, and fundamentally they play the best baseball."
Canfield, relying on the team concept this season more than the play of any one individual, defeated Poland for the district title last season after losing both regular season games.
The Cardinals have thrived on the play of senior third baseman Scott Wadman (team's RBI leader, bats over .400); senior catcher Paul Suhar (sound backstop, bats over .300); and second baseman Tom Banna and left fielder Doug Hudoba, both juniors who bat around .400.
"Canfield always hits the ball," Guarnieri said, "but they don't have a dominant guy [on the mound] like they normally have -- the Pat Franks, the Kevin Culps."
Will it be deja vu all over again for the Bulldogs?
"They're Canfield," Poland coach Steve Rohan said. "They're the team to beat in the district no matter what they're seeded. It's hard enough to win [the district] one year; they've won it the past three years."
A pair of standout senior pitchers -- Struthers' Pat Watt and Niles' P.J. Rishel -- most likely will square off in the other semifinal.
Watt has signed with Division I Akron while Rishel is undecided.
Guarnieri calls his ace, who takes the mound in every big game, a Division I-type player. Rishel also is a leader at the plate, batting close to .500, with five home runs and 30 RBIs.
"If we had to pick a team to play out of the three, we'd pick Struthers," Guarnieri said. "It's a situation where our guys want to face Pat one more time, especially after the first loss. We battled that game."
Struthers coach Bill Cammack said, "We have a nice pitching staff [Watt is joined by Jared Bogan]. Our kids just play hard and hit the ball when we need to."
Congested leaderboard: Just how good is the MAC? Poland and Struthers tied for the title with 7-3 records, and Howland, at 6-3, still has a chance to join the leaders.
Now, their sights are set on the regional.
The suspense lies in which team will be left standing.
XBrian Richesson covers high school sports for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.