By Ken Barhorst
With the outstanding tradition Russia has in the sport of baseball, it’s surprising that the 2017 Raiders’ appearance in the state tournament starting on Friday will be the school’s first in 42 years.
They have come close, certainly, only to fall short. But all that was erased on Saturday when the Raiders edged two-time defending state champion Newark Catholic 3-2 in the regional championship game, earning them a trip to Columbus with a 23-6 record.
Kevin Phlipot led his team to the big show in just his third season as head coach of the Raiders, and his record this season so far ups his career mark at the school to 53-22.
“It’s been an outstanding last couple of weeks,” said the coach. “We played in a tough league, with us, Anna and Loramie all tying for the league title, so our league has something to say. And we played a tough non-league schedule, with some D-1 schools, and teams like Minster and Fort Recovery, teams that have had some success in the postseason.
“We try to play good competition to get us ready for tournament play, and it’s been quite a ride so far,” he went on. “It started in the sectional with the 10-inning game with Lehman, one of the best games you could be a part of. The kids had to handle a lot of emotion, but they stayed focused and battled through that game to get us here.”
The Raiders had to follow that thriller with a game against Fort Loramie, and that was a team that had beaten them twice during the regular season, costing them an outright title.
“I told the kids that we’re not going to see a situation this weekend that we haven’t already seen this season,” Phlipot said. “It started with the very first game of the season against Houston. We were down twice in that game, including going to the seventh. But we got a couple runs and pulled it out. And in our last three tournament games, we’ve been behind in every one but got runs when we needed them. These kids have shown some resilience and they are just incredibly confident right now.”
The Raiders would appear to be a heavy favorite to make it to the state championship game. They are taking on a Dalton team in the semifinals that is just 16-11 coming into the state tournament.
Not only that, but Dalton is a very young team that returned just five lettermen, of which only one was a senior. And he is one of only two seniors on the team.
“I don’t know a whole lot about Dalton, and that’s a concern,” said Phlipot. “But whether you know them or not, it comes down to executing. As for us, I know we’re confident but I also know that while we can beat anybody, we can also be shut down. When you get to this stage, you know you’re going to see good teams and Dalton is playing their best ball right now. They are like us — very confident and not afraid of anything right now.”
The Raiders are led by County Player of the Year Hunter Cohee, who will likely get the start on the mound. But if he runs into trouble, Phlipot has fellow junior Jack Dapore and sophomore Daniel Kearns to turn to.
“I think that’s our strength, our pitching depth,” Phlipot said. “Hunter is the man we want on the mound in this game, but I have great confidence in any of the three. Our pitching depth is what we’ve built this team around.”