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Regional Champs: Baseball Cats Headed to the Big Dance

By Jack O'Rourke '20, 06/01/19, 11:00AM EDT


“This is a very special group of young men. They love hanging out together, and they needed to find a reason to hang out for one more week.”

Assistant Coach Mr. John Whelan perfectly stated the bond that the Saint Ignatius baseball team has with each other, and how a family atmosphere has propelled them to a final four berth.

On Friday, the Saint Ignatius baseball team won the Regional Final over Sylvania Southview, 7-4. This is how it went down.

In the top of the first inning, AJ Gaich walked and stole second base. Junior right fielder Jack Whelan advanced Gaich to third base with a sacrifice bunt. Despite the good opportunity, Southview pitcher Cam Young kept the Cats off the scoreboard.

The Cougars threatened early after reaching base via a single and an error, but Nick Fletcher stood tall. Fletcher’s full count pitch to the Southview cleanup hitter resulted in a ground ball to Gaich, who tagged the runner heading for second base and threw to Connor Mays to complete the double play.

Young worked a second hitless inning, as he downed the Wildcats 1-2-3 in the top of the second inning. Fletcher countered Young in the bottom of the frame with a 1-2-3 inning of his own, including a leaping catch by Gaich on a line drive.

Mays singled to begin the third inning, and Erik Daugenti advanced him into scoring position. Gaich walked once again, and Gaich and Mays both nabbed an extra base. With one out, two runners were in scoring position for Jack Whelan. The junior reached safely on a fielder’s choice, as Mays beat the throw to home plate. Whelan’s RBI gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead. Whelan took second base on a steal and a Michael Holdsworth ground out sent Gaich across home plate. Through the top of the third, the Wildcats led 2-0.

Fletcher allowed two hits in the bottom half of the inning, but the junior again worked his way out of a jam, as Gaich cleanly fielded a ground ball and sent it to the first baseman Mays for the final out. Flynn Lenahan and Austin Jones singled to begin the fourth inning, but Young kept the score at 2-0.

The Cougars singled twice to begin the bottom of the fourth inning, and a sacrifice bunt moved the runners up one bag to second and third base. Connor Bush hit a sacrifice fly, scoring the first Southview run of the game, despite a good throw from Daugenti. Fletcher got the opposing pitcher, Cam Young, to ground out to end the fourth. The Wildcats still led, 2-1.

Young retired three straight Wildcats in the top of the fifth inning, including his second strikeout of the day on the mound. After a leadoff ground out, the Cougars singled, doubled, and singled off Fletcher to tie the game up, and had runners on the corners with one out. Head Coach Brad Ganor made the call to the bullpen as the crowd gave a nice round of applause to Fletcher.

Luke Lashutka entered the game, and much as he did versus North Royalton earlier in these playoffs, dominated. After a leadoff sacrifice squeeze gave the Cougars the lead, Luke retired the last batter of the inning on a pop up to Whelan. Fletcher’s day was officially closed with 4.1 innings pitched, 3 runs, and an astounding zero walks. Fletcher gave the Wildcats a chance to win the game, and now Lashutka and the Wildcats’ offense would help Fletcher make good on his promise.

Down to their last six outs, the Wildcats needed a sixth-inning rally. The Cats got what they needed.

The ever-reliable Michael McNamara began the inning by cranking a triple. The junior shortstop, who lost his helmet during the journey, popped up from his slide and gave a reaffirming fist pump to his dugout that it was their game to win. Flynn Lenahan forced a key walk, giving the Blue and Gold runners on the corners with no outs. Lenahan then stole second base to take away any hope of a force play. Austin Jones, the Saint Ignatius senior catcher and one of four captains, perfectly placed a bloop single, which sent McNamara home to tie the game. Matt Geraci, another captain and all-around athlete, laid down a bunt, further advancing the runners. After the Cougars made a pitching change, Mays squared to bunt and picked up an RBI on a fielder’s choice, and with the help of Coach Whelan, caught the Cougars sleeping and advanced to second on the play. The Wildcats had taken the lead back from Southview. Danny Castenir walked to load the bases, and Daugenti pinch ran for him. Gaich singled home two runners and advanced Daugenti to third base, pushing the lead to 6-3. An errant pickoff attempt of Gaich at first base sent Daugenti home. The Wildcats sent five runners across the plate in the sixth inning, and led 7-3.

Luke Lashutka was dominant in the bottom of the sixth. The junior Fairview Park native sent the leadoff batter back to the dugout after catching him looking at a called third strike, then forced two fly balls to Whelan and McNamara.

Lenahan reached with a walk in the top of the seventh, but Jakob Harshman kept him at first with some clutch pitching. Lashutka retook the mound in the bottom of the frame to close it out.

The first Cougar to bat in the bottom of the seventh hit a hard ground ball up the middle that seemed as if it would surely be a single. Shortstop Michael McNamara tracked the ball down, however, and made a rocket throw to first base to drop Southview to two outs left in their season.

The next two Cougars reached on an error and a single, though, and Southview had runners at the corners with one out, still trailing by four. They made their second out of the inning via a sacrifice fly to the outfield, but the Wildcats were willing to trade a run for an out.

A ground ball to McNamara sealed the deal as he sent the ball to Mays for the final out. Lashutka was mobbed near the mound as the Wildcats clinched their spot in the final four.

“It was a battle all the way, and a team effort,” said Ganor. “Nick and Luke pitched great, McNamara tripled and we had a few big hits, bunts, and walks, and the door opened after that.”

This is the Wildcats' 10th appearance in the state final four since Coach Ganor has been on the staff as an assistant coach or as head coach. Since 2000, the Wildcats have reached the dance in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2015, 2016, and now 2019. The Wildcats were the OHSAA D-I state champions in the 2002 season.

The Wildcats will play in the State Semifinal on Friday vs Hilliard Darby. The Panthers are coming off a Regional Final win over Dublin Coffman, and a Regional Semifinal win over Lancaster. First pitch is scheduled for 1:00 pm. The game will take place at Canal Park, the state-of-the-art ballpark of the Akron Rubberducks. The Rubberducks, the Indians AA affiliate, boast the largest scoreboard in all of the MiLB.

A preview with directions and the address, as well as a playoff recap to date and a “getting to know Darby” feature will come in the middle of next week.

The SIBN will have full coverage of the contest.