Buoyed by a roster full of capable pitching arms, the Versailles Tigers are armed and ready to defend their Division III regional baseball crown.
Versailles – Quick, and without thinking…what two area teams last year advanced to the state semi-finals in baseball?
If you’re thinking, perhaps, Ft. Recovery, in Division IV, you’d be right and justified because the Indians made their second trip in as many years, losing to Newark Catholic in the semi-final round both times.
But there’s no shame if you can’t think of the other. After all, it had been a while since the Versailles Tigers had been there…16 years, in fact; and 42 years since the Tigers won their only state championship in 1965.
It’s easy to overlook something when you have decades in between.
But it’s going to be tough to overlook Ryan Schlater’s Tigers in 2017 because they’re primed to return, and “armed” with the most precious commodity you can have at any level of baseball. The Tigers have pitching, and a veritable “riches of arms”, in fact, if you listen to Schlater.
Behind their #1 arm, junior Cole Niekamp, and # 2, fellow junior Keaton McEldowney, Schlater lists no fewer than seven other pitchers on his roster with game experience and the ability to throw the fastball in the 80 mile-per-hour range, or better.
And they demonstrated that depth Monday night with a 9-0 win over Covington, a Division IV team with its own legacy for good teams and good arms, that lost to perennial MAC power St. Henry 1-0 last week. Junior Noah Richard pitched five innings of three-hit shutout baseball for Versailles before surrendering the mound to the bullpen. Elliot Bruns pitched the final two innings to preserve the shutout.
“Noah is good enough to be higher on the list than he is,” said Schlater of Richard, who needed only to command his fastball on a dark, windy evening with rain imminent. “But we have all those guys like Cole, Keaton, Elliot, Austin Knapke, Jacob Heitkamp, and Zach Griesdorn. After Cole and Keaton, three through seven are pretty much interchangeable.”
And Monday they looked like a team that can beat you with the arms, or the bats. Covington, throwing junior Ty Freeman out-of-conference with league foe Tri-Village coming in on Tuesday, retired Versailles in order in the bottom of the first.
But they scored a single run in the second on an RBI single by Isaac Ruhenkamp, scoring Noah Richard. They scored two more in the bottom of the third when they sent nine men to the plate, McEldowney slammed an RBI double, and Freeman walked three. They added another in the fourth; and brought down the curtain in the fifth when they scored five times in a steady rain…on three hits, a pair of walks, and an error. Covington’s head coach, Mitch Hirsch, missed the game because his wife needed emergency gall bladder surgery. Had he been there, it could have just as easily been him with the belly ache!
In the meantime, Richard was the model of efficiency on the mound. scattering those three hits while striking out five and walking two.
Bruns came on in the sixth and saw Covington load the bases, but wormed his way out of the jam on a come-backer to the mound from Gavin McReynolds for the final out. Covington went down harmlessly in the top of the seventh.
With returning starters at five of the eight positions, Schlater’s Tigers are not presumptive favorites to win their second MAC title in a row…but when you have that many available arms it’s certainly counted as an advantage.
“It’s nice to have those five guys, besides Niekamp and Keaton, that we can throw out there and be comfortable with, either as a starter or reliever,” added Schlater. “And it’s always a tough thing to repeat as champion in any league, especially when you have Coldwater, Minster, St. Henry, Coldwater, and Delphos in the league. Those schools never seem to rebuild, they just reload every year. But as along as we can score runs our pitching becomes a huge advantage for us. It’s just a matter of us getting runs on the board.
“We’re excited for the opportunity of coming back, but not too high at this point. It’s a long season, especially if you make another good run in the tournament. So there’s 20, 25 games left, plus tournament. A lot can happen, so we gotta’ get there first.”
But the look in his eye tells you a lot about how Ryan Schlater is feeling with the new National Federation guidelines on pitchers, how much they can be used, and how often they can be used. Most teams have half what Versailles seems to have, which simple math dictates it doubling their chances. Who knows? It’s high school baseball and the darndest things happen.
But for now, on April 4th…Schlater and the Tigers are armed and ready!