By Matt Zircher
SPRINGFIELD — The Russia Raiders fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first, but that was all Newark Catholic managed, enabling the Raiders to come from behind and pull out a 3-2 victory over the two-time defending state champions in the finals of the Division IV regional baseball tournament in Springfield Saturday.
The win means Russia will be making its first trip to the state tournament in 42 years, the last time being in 1975, when the team lost in the state championship game, four years after winning the small-school title (1971).
This time, they will take on 16-11 Dalton in the semifinals Friday at 4 p.m. at Huntington Park, the home of the Class AAA Columbus Clippers, in downtown Columbus.
A win in that game would advance the Raiders to the championship on Saturday at 4 against either top-ranked Toronto, or the Minster Wildcats, who advanced with a 3-1 win over Leipsic.
“I’m incredibly proud our of guys,” said Russia head coach Kevin Phlipot. “This is the ultimate goal, getting to state, but to actually reach it, after what we’ve gone through during the tournament run, is just amazing. A bad hop here or there against Lehman two weeks ago and we would have been done, and the same thing with the two games here at the regional.
“The guys have just battled throughout the tournament and haven’t got down on themselves when we’ve trailed,” he added. “They haven’t been phased by anything and just stepped up and responded when they needed to.”
Russia starter Hunter Cohee gave up two runs in the top of the first and allowed 10 hits in all, but with the Raiders holding the precarious one-run lead, he retired the last seven batters to preserve the lead and punch the ticket to state.
“Newark Catholic scored twice in the first, but Hunter was able to bounce back from that and pitch out of a few other tight jams,” said Phlipot of the County Player of the Year. “He is a competitor and when push comes to shove, he’s the guy we want on the mound.”
Newark Catholic’s runs came after the first two batters were retired. Four straight singles resulted in the 2-0 lead.
Russia no doubt helped restore some of Cohee’s confidence with a run of its own in the bottom of the first, however. Dylan Cordonnier smacked a one-out double, and after he reached third on a throwing error, Cohee plated him with a sacrifice fly.
“It was very important that we answered with that run in the bottom of the first,” Phlipot said. “We had some great at-bats in that inning and Hunter just missed hitting the ball over the left fielder. It helped settle us down and the kids starting thinking, we got this.”
Cohee settled in, but did allow baserunners. Newark left one on in the second and third, and two on in the fourth.
The Raiders took the lead for good with two runs in the bottom of the third inning, despite the first two batters in the inning failing to reach.
But Cordonnier again started it off with a single up the middle and went on to produce the run on his own. He advanced to second on a throwing error by the pitcher, then stole third. The throw eluded the third baseman, and in his haste to retrieve it, he collided with Cordonnier. Interference was called, and Cordonnier was awarded home to tie the game up.
Drew Sherman then singled through the right side and took second on a wild pitch. Cohee then came through again with a double to score him and give the Raiders the lead.
That was the extent of the scoring, although Newark Catholic had a big threat going in the top of the fifth. A one-out double was followed by a single to left to put runners on first and third. But in one of the game’s biggest plays, Cohee picked the runner off first for the second out, then got a fly-ball out to end the threat.
He then retired the side in the sixth and seventh innings.
“They had a couple of base-running mistakes and we were able to take advantage,” Phlipot said. “Getting the pickoff and then a quick out to end the fifth really gave us, and especially Hunter, a boost. Games like this come down to breaks and who can make them.”
Cordonnier had a big day at the plate, going 3-for-3 with a double and two runs scored. Cohee was 2-for-3 with a double and two big RBIs.
On the mound, Cohee allowed 10 hits and two runs, both earned, while striking out four and walking none.
Newark Catholic, which was looking for its 17th state-tournament appearance, got a route-going effort from Jody Mummey. He allowed seven hits and three runs, two earned, with six strikeouts and one walk.