ZANESVILLE - There was a time not too long ago, actually, when the Harrison Central Huskies' baseball program was struggling to just win games.
When you consider where they've come from in just a few seasons, it makes the fact that the Huskies are just a victory away from playing in the Division II State Tournament at Huntington Park in Columbus even harder to fathom.
However, it's a fact!
These aren't your 2010 or 2011 Harrison Central Huskies.
This is a baseball team - led by a talented senior class that suffered through the low points of the program - that pitches well, defends well, runs the bases wisely and gets timely hitting.
That recipe worked brilliantly again for head coach Justin Clifford at Gant Municipal Stadium as Harrison Central advanced to the school's first regional championship in any team sport with a 3-0 blanking of Vincent Warren.
"When we were freshmen and sophomores, we struggled," said Harrison Central senior Nick Pelegreen. "It's amazing to see how we've come back, from struggling that much, to being in the regional final. It's just an amazing feeling and really special."
Next up for the Huskies is a date this afternoon with Waverly, which dispatched West Holmes, 3-2, in the nightcap.
On top of all of the on-field positives this Huskies' team has going for it, it has a definitive ace on the mound in senior Rashaen Mitchell, who earned his ninth win this season with yet another complete-game effort.
This latest victory wasn't as smooth as some of Mitchell's outings. Not because he got hit all over the yard. He didn't have his best command (he issued four walks and plunked a hitter) and he battled a couple of minor health problems. He had a blister and in the latter innings he was dealing with cramps.
"Rashaen lives on the edge," Clifford said. "He threw a one hitter and there were times when I was still ready to pull my hair out. But, he always gets himself out of jams."
It would have taken something like Tommy John surgery, though, to get Mitchell out of the game.
"I just told (Coach Clifford) I was staying in the game," Mitchell said. "He said, 'OK. I'm not taking you out.' There was no way I was coming out. Whether I was bleeding, cramping or whatever, I was going to keep going with it."
Clifford was very blunt with Mitchell when he visited the mound as he dealt with cramps.
"He said he wasn't coming out and I didn't want him to, but if he couldn't throw a strike, he wasn't going to be out there," Clifford admitted. "He's just a competitor and he battles. He was going to have to be unable to walk for us to (take him out)."
If you're starting to believe this Huskies' team might have fate on its side, you wouldn't be alone.
The Huskies rolled past Buckeye Local in the sectional opener, but has since had to squeak out victories against Carrollton in 12 innings, beat Dover and now the Warriors.
As Clifford pointed out earlier in the week, you don't make a run in a tournament in Ohio without talent and luck. Harrison Central has more than enough talent to get it done today and the luck has been on its side already during this tournament, so why not once again?
"This is just so special to be at this point," Mitchell said. "I can't even believe we're here. We know we have to come out and play our best."
Clifford expects to give the ball to Pelegreen and could turn to frosh Dustin Redish, who played an absolutely brilliant game at shortstop, in the semifinal.
"We're very confident in Nick and Dustin," Clifford said. "They've thrown in big games. Nick's a senior and he's been in the fire a few times."
Pelegreen is a seasoned veteran who's won plenty of big games in his career. He's looking forward to taking the bump today.
"I am going to go into the game confident," Pelegreen said. "Coach Clifford always says throw strikes, we'll make some plays in the field and we'll need to hit the ball well, too."
Mitchell has the keys to the game already figured out.
"We just have to come out, field the ball, hit it and we'll be fine," Mitchell said.
If that happens for the Huskies, they can make their travel plans to Huntington Park next Thursday at 4 p.m. to face the winner of the regional being held at the University of Dayton.
Staskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org