The annual trip south is as much about team bonding as the on-field product for the Saint Ignatius baseball program.
As it so happens, the Baseball Cats enjoyed a wonderful team bonding experience while earning two huge wins and playing great baseball.
The Wildcats split four games in Florida this past week. The men of Brad Ganor defeated Tampa Catholic (9-0), fell to Calvary Christian in extra innings (7-6), upset Tampa Jesuit (9-3), and dropped a contest to Carrollwood Day (6-0).
Looking on the trip as a whole, Head Coach Brad Ganor was quite pleased.
"It was a huge success," Ganor said. "We played really well, but the success, in my mind, comes from everything else besides playing games. We were able to bond as a team. As a coach, you can learn so many things about the players personally, beyond baseball. That is invaluable, and in the end, helps to win games."
The Wildcats indeed won a game to start the trip, opening with a huge victory over Tampa Catholic. It was a game in which the visitors never trailed.
In the first at-bat of the 2019 season, AJ Gaich was hit by pitch. The senior later scored the first run of the year on a fielders choice grounder hit by Michael McNamara. Gaich scored again in the third inning off a Michael Holdsworth single. Erik Daugenti also plated two in the third with a double to center, scoring Matt Ferritto and Nick Fletcher.
The Wildcats kept adding to the scoreboard throughout the game. Gaich scored yet again in the fourth on an Austin Jones walk. Holdsworth crossed home in the fourth as well, on a Flynn Lenahan walk. Holdsworth knocked an RBI single and McNamara hit into another fielders choice to plate Daugenti in the fifth. Richie Santiago Jr. finished the scoring with a liner to right to score Jake Lang in the sixth.
All the while, the Wildcats' pitchers rolled through Tampa Catholic. Matt Geraci hurled 4 innings of 1-hit baseball, striking out three. Sam LaGuardia, Teddy Eyink, and Justin Sekerak combined to shut the door tightly, each pitching a scorelss and hittless inning. The Wildcats struck out 8 and allowed just 1 hit over the course of seven innings.
"A common phrase I like to say is that the two hardest games to win are the first one and the last one. The first one always comes and the last one is the hardest of all," Ganor said. "But it's nice to come out of the gates, get good pitching and hit well. To allow one hit over the course of the game when you're using multiple pitchers on a pitch count is great."
The Wildcats played an unfamiliar role in the second game against Calvary Christian – the underdog. Calvary Christian entered as the No. 11 team in the country according to USA TODAY and the Wildcats rolled in as an unranked squad from Ohio.
From the start, the Wildcats played like a hungry junkyard dog, scrapping and clawing against a very talented foe.
Gaich started the game off on a great note. The Wildcats' on-field version of Rickey Henderson blasted a leadoff homer to right field, setting the stage for a great contest.
Calvary Christian responded with 2 runs in the bottom of the first, but the Cats came back in the fourth. Gaich and Holdsworth delivered back-to-back jacks to steal back the lead, 4-3. Meanwhile, the Wildcats' pitching held firm. Luke Lashutka, Sean Wracher, LaGuardia, and Fletcher held the hosts to three runs through five innings.
Calvary Christian tallied three runs in the sixth to snatch back the lead, 6-4. But this Wildcats squad would not be denied. With Holdsworth at third and McNamara on second in the top of the seventh, Lenahan hit a grounder to second. The second baseman threw it to the plate, but Holdsworth beat the throw to bring the score to within one. Geraci, the next batter, hit a clutch single to center to score McNamara and knot the contest.
In the ninth, the deadlock was broken. Calvary Christian managed to stave off the underdog Cats with a 1-out RBI single. Even still, the Wildcats felt like winners.
"We were disappointed to lose, but we showed a lot of fight in getting the lead, losing it, and getting it back," Ganor said. "It shows a lot about the makeup of this team. For us, it's rare to be the underdog. When the other team is looking across the field at us in shock, that's a testament to our talent level."
The next game would not be any easier. Tampa Jesuit entered as the No. 12 team in the country, a perennial Florida powerhouse with a team littered with college prospects.
In the end, Jesuit's talent didn't matter. The underdog kids from Cleveland fougth tooth and nail, forcing the hosts to burn through all of its pitchers.
Jesuit earned an early lead with an RBI single in the bottom of the third. But that was all the Tigers could score against Andrew Mulhern. The senior looked sharp in limiting Jesuit to six hits over six innings, striking out four batters along the way. His pinpoint pitching allowed the Wildcats' offense time to awake.
When the Wildcats started hitting, Jesuit had no answer. The onslaught began with 3 runs in the fifth. McNamara tied the game on a double, Jones stole the lead on an RBI grounder, and Geraci added an insurance marker with a single to center. The machine kept rolling in the sixth. Holdsworth, McNamara, and Jones all stood patiently at the plate and drew 2-out walks. With a new pitcher on the mound, Geraci bid his time and worked the count and fouled a couple pitches off. On a 1-2 count, Geraci hammered a beautiful 2-run double to center.
Geraci's clutch double provided the back-breaker. McNamara supplied the final nail in the coffin in the seventh. Fletcher and Holdsworth reached base on hit by pitches while Gaich got on via a single. With 2 outs and the bases juiced, McNamara worked the count. On the eighth delivery of the at-bat, McNamara found his pitch and sent it careening over the wall in right for a SportsCenter worthy grand slam. Jesuit added two runs in the seventh, but the statement remained the same for the Wildcats.
"We go into everygame internally with the mindset that we expect to win," Ganor said. "When you're playing that level of competition, they don't expect you to be as good as them. We got up on them in the fifth and didn't let off. The grand slam was great. Geraci's 2-out double with two men on was just as great. His clutch double gave us breathing room.
"No one but us expected to win. It always feels good to win when no one expects you to."
The trip ended with a letdown loss for the Wildcats. The offense went cold and failed to score a run, while the pitching staff surrendered 6 runs in a loss to Carrollwood Day.
However, the Wildcats still have plenty to be proud of in terms of the on-field results in Florida.
"When you play multiple days in a row and have three emotional games, I'm not surprised there was a letdown," Ganor said. "We just didn't have the energy for it. They weren't able to make it happen, but that's baseball. You don't sit on it too long. That's why I love baseball – you don't have to wait a week to play a game."
Indeed, the Wildcats will be right back at it on Tuesday. The Baseball Cats head to Massillon to face Jackson for a 5 pm road showdown. The Wildcats return to the friendly confines of Fisher Field at Baldwin Wallace on Friday for a 5 pm contest vs. Massillon Washington.
The Wildcats will look to continue building on the strong start and good team chemistry.
"I'm impressed with how close team got," Ganor said. "You could see them get closer. You don't always have teams where kids enjoy each other off field. This year, the kids love being around each other and hanging out off the field."