By Steve Ruman
In what has become an annual tradition, Mahoning County will be well-represented in the Ohio High School Athletic Association regional baseball tournament.
Springfield, Ursuline and Cardinal Mooney — schools rich in baseball tradition — each captured district titles a week ago. Now begins the quest for a regional championship and a trip to the state tournament.
All three schools play this afternoon in regional semifinal games.
For Springfield (18-7), a trip to the Division IV Sweet 16 is becoming old hat. The Tigers are making their third straight regional appearance, and fourth in the past five seasons.
Springfield faces Attica Seneca East (23-4) at 5:30 p.m. at Copley High School.
After losing five of eight heading into sectional and district play, Springfield caught fire. The Tigers outscored four tournament opponents 43-14.
“Our regular-season journey wasn’t quite as smooth as it was in the past, but we played a really tough schedule and it helped prepare us for May,” said Springfield coach Matt Weymer. “We started to click in the sectionals, and we knew that the district was there for the taking.”
At the age of 26, Weymer is already making his third regional appearance in just his third year of coaching. In 2011, the Tigers lost in the state final. A year ago, they fell in the regional semifinals.
“I tell everyone that my job is easy,” Weymer said. “The players make it all happen. I don’t do a lot.”
Weymer describes his team as “a group of young veterans.” Springfield returned seven starters from a year ago, but five of those lettermen are just sophomores.
“Our motto is, ‘Next man up,’” Weymer said. “Our younger guys play off of the tradition that players before them have established. They work very hard trying to maintain the success that came before them.”
Like Springfield, Seneca East is nicknamed the Tigers, and it dons orange and black uniforms. Beyond that, Weymer knows very little about his opponent.
“I called every coach I know, hoping to get some info on them, but I’ve had no luck,” Weymer said. “It’s not like basketball where you can rely on film. All I know is that they were ranked third in the state in the coaches’ poll. That speaks volumes.
“We think we will be facing a lefty, but that’s about as far as the scouting report goes.”
Springfield will send Dalton Donachie to the mound. The sophomore scattered three hits and struck out six in the Tigers’ 10-6 win over McDonald in the district final.
“Dalton is young, but he’s already been in a number of big games,” Weymer said. “He does not get blown away in the moment.”
Ursuline (22-2) is making its third consecutive regional appearance. The Irish will face LaGrange Keystone (23-7) at 2 p.m. at Massillon Washington High School. The contest will be a rubber match of sorts, as it marks the third consecutive year the two teams have met in the Division III regional semifinals.
In 2011, LaGrange defeated Ursuline 5-0. A year ago, the Irish prevailed 3-2 in nine innings.
“It’s very unique to face the same opponent three straight years,” said Ursuline coach Sean Durkin. “I know (LaGrange) lost two starting pitchers from last year, and they have a new coach. But the program is top-notch. They just always seem to reload, and this year is no different.”
Ursuline began the year with lofty goals, having returned all but one everyday starter from last year’s 18-5 team. The Irish met all expectations by winning their first 17 games.
“Our pitching staff from top to bottom was hitting on all cylinders, and our defense was outstanding all season long,” Durkin said. “We were doing everything we envisioned we could do at the start of the season.”
The Irish then suffered their only two setbacks of the year in back-to-back games against Canfield and Boardman.
“We lost to a pair of extremely strong programs, and as a coach I was anxious to see how our kids would respond,” Durkin said. “They bounced right back. They shook off the adversity and moved forward, and that’s when I knew we might have something special.”
Ursuline won its final two games of the regular season, then defeated United, Campbell and South Range en route to a district title.
Cardinal Mooney (20-7) advanced to the district title game five of the past seven years. In its first four tries, it came up empty. That changed last Tuesday when the Cardinals downed Struthers, 12-0, sending them to the Division II regionals at The Ball Park at Hudson. The Cards will battle Canton South (24-4) at 2 p.m. in a regional semifinal.
“Our guys have been driven all year long by last year’s loss to Canfield in the district championship,” said Mooney coach Al Franceschelli. “That setback didn’t set well with the team all winter long. They headed into this season on a mission, and they never lost the drive.”
Despite its determination, Mooney’s youth (just two senior starters) combined with a tough schedule resulted in some early struggles. The Cardinals at one point were just 5-4 before going on a 15-game winning streak.
“We had the talent, but the players had to be sold on the team concept,” Franceschelli said. “Once we started moving runners up a base, sacrificing in a run, the wins followed. This team matured in a hurry.
“We were really hitting our stride as we entered the tournament. There was a quiet confidence amongst this group.”
Mooney faces a Canton South team which is making its second straight regional appearance. Like the Cardinals, the Wildcats are short on veterans. However, their youthful pitching corps, which is without a senior, sports a 1.61 earned-run average.
“They have three or four really good players who can make a difference,” Franceschelli said. “They have a strong No. 1 starter, an outstanding center fielder, and their second baseman-shortstop combo is extremely athletic.
“From my understanding, this group has played together for a long time, and they play well together.”
Winners in each division will play on Friday in a regional title contest. Regional champions will advance to the state tournament, which will be June 6-8 at Huntington Park in Columbus.