Harrison Central is state bound
LANCASTER — The comeback kids have done it again.
For the third time in the tournament and second time in as many days, Harrison Central’s baseball team proved that it’s not going to throw in the towel despite an early deficit.
Because of the playing the entire 21 out mentality that head coach Mike Valesko has instilled in his group, the Huskies are headed to the OHSAA State Baseball Tournament for the second time in school history.
They got there Friday afternoon by virtue of a hard-earned and dramatic, come-from-behind 8-7 win against perennial power Wheelersburg at hot and sun-drenched Beavers Field to win the Division III regional championship.
“This group is just not going to quit,” Valesko said.
Even with the mentality and a lot of game to play, when the Huskies spotted the Pirates a 7-0 lead through two innings, things were looking quite bleak.
“You’re down 7-0 and you’ve given up six in the first … I don’t know if you can find a way to put yourself in a bigger hole,” Valesko said. “It’s so tough mentality, but we were able to throw up a couple of zeroes, put together some good at-bats and we just kept pushing to the next inning.”
The biggest early adjustment the Huskies had to make was finding a pitcher whose command was on. During the first inning, Valesko made two pitching changes as his starter and first reliever combined to walk five, plunk a batter, allow three hits and it resulted in a 6-0 deficit.
However, Tucker Snyder, the third Harrison pitcher, induced a fielder’s choice to end the first inning which took 40 minutes of real time and saw the Pirates send 12 to the plate.
“The amount of respect I have for Wheelersburg athletics and specifically baseball is off the charts,” Valesko said. “We knew who was in the other dugout and if we were going to win, we had to go earn it, so we kept plugging away.”
Snyder allowed a two-out run in the second, but settled in and kept the Pirates off the board and the Harrison Central offense was able to get going.
In the third, Harrison pushed two runs across. Jace Madzia had a RBI single to score Treston Nemeth, who had doubled. Snyder had a RBI ground out to score Kayden Dunkle, who had led off the frame with a walk.
Harrison went back to work, offensively, in the fifth. Nemeth — the three-time All-Ohioan and University of Dayton signee — continued to assault opposing pitching and led off the inning with a single.
After an out was recorded, Madzia was plunked and the following an innocent pop out, Harrison received back-to-back RBI singles from the Brothers Arbaugh — Reed and Cabot — to make it 7-4.
Momentum appeared to be ready to shift back to Wheelersburg in the bottom of the fifth when it got its first two hitters aboard against Snyder.
The Pirates eventually got to second and third with no outs, forcing Valesko to bring the infield in.
Snyder induced a chopper to Madzia at third and the Wheelersburg runner — moving on contact — broke for home. Nemeth — the Huskies catcher — chased him back to third and tagged him on his back and somehow rolled over and tagged the Pirates runner who was trying to move to third from second for the second out of the inning.
“You just have to keep playing the game the right way and baseball will reward you,” Nemeth said. “The play at third was a true momentum changer. It really seemed to pick us all up and helped us rally because we came right back on offense. If we don’t make that play, they probably score a couple more runs, so that was really an inning saver.”
The Huskies appeared to be a team of destiny at that point, actually.
“Treston came into the dugout after that double play and said, ‘we’re going to win this baseball game,'” Valesko recalled. “We’re always preaching, as coaches, to keep playing and keep believing, but when you hear it from the kids, there’s never a panic.”
Kaden Jurosko, who had been 0-3 at the plate up until the sixth, led off with a single and Dunkle was hit by pitch. Nemeth delivered a RBI single. After a strikeout, Madzia was plunked again to load the bases.
Dunkle raced home, making it 7-6, on a wild pitch and freshman Braden Cook, who was elevated to the varsity level in late April, stepped to the plate with Nemeth and Madzia in scoring position.
He ripped a pitch into left, driving in both runs. Madzia alertly slid head first to the back portion of the plate and the Wheelersburg catcher missed the tag.
“I never thought I’d be in this position (of driving in the game-winning run in a regional final) when the season started, but it’s been a long road here,” Cook said. “I was just up there swinging at everything and praying. These (seniors) have really helped mold me into the player I am and I am excited I had the chance to help get them to the state.”
Harrison Central got through the sixth and stranded a Wheelersburg hitter at second, but failed to add any insurance runs in its half of the seventh.
Wheelersburg’s pedigree wasn’t going to allow it to go quietly. It produced back-to-back singles off a tiring Snyder, leading Valesko to a decision.
“I was debating leaving Tucker in there, but I thought, ‘if we’re going home,’ we’re going to go home with some veteran guys,” Valesko said.
So, he lifted Snyder in favor of Jurosko, who had not pitched since the sectional opener three weeks ago due to an injury.
“Kaden had told me earlier in the week if we got into a spot where we needed a couple of outs, he’d be ready,” Valesko said. “I went out in the seventh and looked at him and he was ready.”
Wheelersburg dropped down a beautiful sacrifice bunt to move both runners up 90 feet and Jurosko then got a strikeout. He ended it and set off a wild celebration when he got a ground ball to third that Madzia threw on to Cabot Arbaugh for the coveted 21st out.
“I just wanted to throw strikes and let my fielders work,” Jurosko, who celebrated his 18th birthday and was doused with water by his teammates, said. “It was a nerve-wracking moment, but it worked out and this is just an unbelievable feeling. We’ve been putting in work every day and we deserve this. I had a few bad at-bats early in the game, but I kept my head in the game and I just can’t be more proud of this entire team.”
The Huskies, who entered the tournament just a game over .500, will embark on their first trip to the state semifinals since 2013 when Valesko was an assistant coach under head coach Justin Clifford.
Ironically, the Huskies rallied from a seven-run deficit in that game as well.
Next up for Harrison is a date with another perennial power in Heath, which took out Jamestown Greenview, 6-2. The game will be played June 9 at 7 p.m.