Eyes on the prize

CADIZ – The Harrison Central baseball team is entering unchartered waters this week.

Thursday afternoon, the Huskies will meet Plain City Jonathan Alder in the Division II state semifinals on the grass surface at Huntington Park in downtown Columbus’ Arena District. The first pitch is set for 4 o’clock.

That survivor advances to Saturday’s 1 p.m. championship game against the Akron Hoban-Defiance victor. Defiance is the No. 1 ranked team in the state. Those two teams play the final state semifinal game of Thursday’s quadruple header with first pitch slated for 7 p.m.

“These guys have battled day-in and day-out every game this season,” second-year Harrison Central head coach Justin Clifford said. “It’s been fun to come to work every day, so to say.”

The Huskies reeled off nine straight wins to start the season before falling at Buckeye Local. They then won three more before losing back-to-back games to Buckeye 8 rivals Edison and Indian Creek. Three more victories had the Blue-and-White at 15-3 before they dropped consecutive games to Oak Glen and Martins Ferry in early May.

Another trio of wins had them sitting at 18-5, but back-to-back setbacks to Indian Creek and Linsly (EOBL Championship Game) ended the regular season on a down note.

“You never throw your best when you’re getting ready for the tournament,” Clifford advised. “Not that the guys we threw aren’t competitors.”

Once the postseason began, the Huskies’ mission also got under way.

The Cadiz-based consolidation breezed past Buckeye Local 13-3 in a six-inning yawner to start sectional action at A.J. Vaccaro Field in Steubenville. In the sectional final against Carrollton, it appeared as the Huskies’ season was over a couple of different times as the Warriors were a worthy opponent.

However, after 12 grueling innings, the Harrison County nine prevailed, 8-7, for their 20th triumph.

The Huskies followed that up with a convincing 6-2 nod over Dover in the one-game district – also at A.J. Vaccaro Field – which moved Harrison Central further than any team in school history.

Harrison Central fans flocked, in droves, to Gant Municipal Stadium in Zanesville for the Region 7 tournament last week, and they were treated to a pair of special games by the Huskies.

In the semis, senior Rashaen Mitchell was nothing short of superlative in a 3-0 whitewashing of Vincent Warren. The lanky lefty struck out 10, walked four and only yielded one harmless single.

If that wasn’t enough, he also singled twice and doubled.

All of that despite a blister on his pitching hand and cramps late in the game.

“There was no way I was coming out of that game,” Mitchell disclosed.

Clifford was almost at a loss for words when describing Mitchell’s gutsy effort.

“What can you say about Rashaen Mitchell?” he asked. “What did he give up, just the one hit? Another 3-for-4 at the plate … just a great performance by him.”

Standing between the Huskies and their first-ever state appearance was state-ranked Waverly.

The Tigers quickly shot out to a commanding lead thanks to some shoddy fielding by the Huskies. They led 7-1 after three innings and the Huskies’ fate seemed bleak.

However, digging deep down, the Huskies didn’t put their tails between their legs and head to the doghouse. Instead, they battled and battled, eventually winning on, of all things, a balk in the bottom of the seventh that capped a miracle comeback for an 8-7 win.

“That was amazing,” Clifford said of that win. “I’m almost at a loss for words.”

Several Huskies have stepped up their games during the post-season, but none more than Mitchell.

“Rashaen had a pretty special weekend last week,” Clifford said. “Two wins on the mound, 14 strikeouts, only allowed one hit and he had six himself. That pretty much speaks for itself, but with that being said, we had so many guys step up in that second game and make big plays when we needed them to.”

Indeed they did.

Nick Staten, the junior catcher who had been pinch hit for earlier in the game, stroked a leadoff double to the fence in left in the bottom of the seventh. Then, Rhett Kuryn, blasted a two-bagger to the gap in left-center that plated Staten with the tying run.

Ryan Rose, the leftfielder for whom Kuryn was DHing, went into run. Austin Kowalski, who has come up with clutch hit after clutch hit after being DH’d for most of the regular season, slapped a single to right that advanced Rose to third.

Following a Waverly pitching change, the reliever balked before throwing a pitch to the plate that sent Rose home and touched off a delirious celebration throughtout Huskie Land.

Mitchell, no doubt the team leader, has a team-high .558 batting average with a team-best 32 RBI. His 12 doubles and four triples also are team highs. He is also 16-of-18 in stolen bases.

On the mound, the southpaw has all five post-season victories, with two coming in relief. He is 10-1 on the year with an ERA under one. He has recorded 94 punchouts and walked 35 batters in 56 innings of work.

The Huskies’ No. 2 pitcher is classmate Nick Pelegreen. He is 3-1 on the season and has started the Carrollton and Waverly games.

“It makes my job a whole lot easier with two horses on the mound like Rashaen and Nick,” Clifford noted.

Pelegreen is also the second-leading run producer for Harrison Central with 31 RBI. He is the lone Huskie to slug a home run. He has two. He hits at a .372 clip and has three doubles.

Junior Dalton Rutter, the rangy centerfielder, sets the table for the Huskies. The left-handed hitter has a .427 average and has scored a team-high 41 runs. He has driven home 12 runs and has 43 singles among his 44 hits. He is also 6-of-7 in stolen bases.

Freshman Dustin Redish is the Huskies’ No. 2 hitter. Playing well beyond his age of 15, Redish has developed into one of the premier shortstops. However, his best performances have come in a pair of middle relief stints when he closed the door against Carrollton and Waverly and gave his team a chance to win.

Mitchell and Pelegreen hit out of the No. 3 and No. 4 holes, respectively, with senior third baseman Drew Horn checking in at the No. 5 spot. He has a .311 norm with six two-baggers and 17 runs batted in.

The No. 6 hitter is Staten. He has eight doubles and 14 RBI while hitting .226. Next is designated hitter Kuryn, who bats .268 with four doubles and 17 RBI. Kowalski, the second baseman, has bumped his average above the .300 mark (.316). He has a dozen singles and had driven in nine runs.

Rose plays left field for the Huskies.

North can be reached at knorth@timesleaderonline.com