By Steve Wilaj
Sam Donko and Ryan Strollo, senior leaders for the Columbus-bound Ursuline Fighting Irish, echoed the same feeling: Thursday’s 10 a.m. matchup with Wheelersburg will be the biggest game, to date, of the two players’ baseball careers.
“Oh, yeah definitely,” Strollo said. “It’s the biggest game I’ve ever been a part of.”
Donko called it a “dream” opportunity.
“Not everybody gets a chance to play in a state championship,” he said. “I’m excited.”
It’s a feeling that is likely shared by the six other Ursuline seniors — Vinnie Boerio, Harry Finelli, Matt Lacko, Anthony Rohan, Steve Balas and Chris Meloro — who make up the veteran Irish roster.
But as excited as they are, their trip to Columbus shouldn’t be a total surprise. In fact, judging from Ursuline’s steady progression over the past few years, it’s a date that could have been expected.
In 2011, when the eight seniors were sophomores, the Irish lost in the Division III regional semifinals to Keystone, 5-0. Last season, they advanced a round further, only to be defeated in the regional finals by Grand Valley, 12-11.
So when they beat Orville, 4-1, on Friday to clinch their first state appearance since 2007, the Irish (24-2) were simply continuing their progression.
“They took the next step this year,” Ursuline coach Sean Durkin said of his seniors. “It’s been a great group. Several of them have been playing since they were freshman and they’ve made the proper steps.”
Now that a loss ends the seniors’ high school careers, the Irish aren’t complacent with taking only one step forward. Durkin would love to see his veteran squad take the giant leap toward the championship.
“They’ve been a real fun group to be around and they’re all going to be sorely missed when they leave,” he said. “But we’re hoping that the ride continues with this group.”
As veteran-savvy as Ursuline is, it’s no comparison to the experience held by Wheelersburg (27-4).
The Pirates are making their fourth straight trip to the state tournament and won the Division III crown last season. Truth be told, Durkin knows that experience is invaluable.
“I would rather be in their situation having been there before than not, but at the same time, we’re pretty confident that we’re mature enough to handle that,” he said. “I think it’s important for them in that their kids aren’t going to be overwhelmed by the stage. Hopefully our kids won’t be either.”
According to Donko — who pitched the 2011 loss to Keystone and will be on the mound on Thursday — the big stage won’t be a problem for Ursuline.
“It’ll probably definitely help them. But inexperience hurting us? I don’t think so,” he said. “We’re veterans.”
Strollo, the Irish shortstop, spoke along the same lines.
“It’s gonna play a little bit of a factor, but we have a very veteran group,” he said. “So we’ll have just as much experience as them, just not in the same type of game.”
Ursuline will get its first taste of Columbus this evening, as the Irish will stay overnight before heading to Huntington Park Thursday morning. However, don’t expect the senior leaders to let the Irish lose focus.
“We want to stay loose and have fun down there,” Strollo said. “But we have to think about the game. The big thing is to just get a good night’s rest and stay focused on the game.”
And while Donko admits some may not see Ursuline as the favorites heading into Thursday’s matchup with the defending champs, he knows it all starts with the Irish.
“In my book, I think we’re the best team in the state in division III,” he said. “I think if we play with that attitude and have that confidence, we should walk away with a win.”