SPRINGFIELD — Fort Loramie coach Jeff Sanders jokingly suggested to junior CJ Billing earlier this season that he grow a mustache.
“It’s intimidating to an opposing team when your third baseman looks like he’s 25 years old,” Sanders said.
Whether or not Billing’s mustache puts fear in opposing batters, opposing pitchers should be as jittery as antagonists in a Tom Selleck movie when they see Billing at the plate.
Billing hit a grand slam in the fifth to help Fort Loramie pull close to Cincinnati Christian on Friday at Carleton Davidson Stadium and hit a two RBI double an inning later to put the Redskins ahead for good in an 8-7 win.
The victory secures Fort Loramie’s first regional title since 2010 and puts the team in a state semifinal next Thursday morning at Huntington Park in Columbus.
The game is the latest clutch performance Billing has had in the tournament for the Redskins (25-6). He had 7 RBIs in a district final win against Tri-County North last week and was 2 for 4 with 1 RBI in a regional semifinal win over Minster on Thursday.
Billing, who was 3 for 4 with 7 RBIs on Friday, hit a grand slam in the fifth that pulled Fort Loramie within 6-5 and then hit a two-RBI double in the sixth to give the Redskins an 8-6 lead.
The hits were one of many key plays for the Redskins, who battled back from a 6-1 deficit.
“We knew we would (come back),” Billing said. “We’re always going to fight. We’re never going to give up. …It’s a long game, that’s all that matters.”
The Cougars (16-9) took a 4-0 lead in the first and then tacked on two runs in the fourth to boost the lead to 6-1 as Billing and Rosengarten struggled on the mound. Mason Kemper, a junior, pitched the last 3 1/3 innings for Fort Loramie and allowed two hits with two strikeouts.
“We just put people in the right spots to perform, and they are good enough athletes and good enough baseball players that they executed when they were called upon to make a play or make a pitch or make a hit,” Sanders, a first-year coach, said. “It’s great.”
After Billing’s hit put the Redskins ahead in the top of the seventh, Kemper had to fight his way out of a jam in the seventh.
Kemper walked the first batter of the inning, but the Cougars’ next batter lined out. Kemper then struck out Connor Ploetz. Cincinnati Christian then scored a run on a single on a hard ground ball by Tim Carangi to cut the deficit to one, but a fly out by Mitchell Smith to Billing at shortstop ended the game.
“It was really tense,” Kemper said of the seventh. “I had to get back to the basics and just throw strikes like I was taught how to do. …I was just overwhelmed with joy (at the final out) and had so much excitement when he caught (the fly ball). On to state we go.”
The Redskins will face Trinity in a state semifinal at 10 a.m. on Thursday. Trinity, a Catholic high school in Garfield Heights, beat Ottawa Hills 15-7 in a regional final on Friday night.
After three consecutive tournament games where the Redskins fought through adversity, Sanders said he feels the team is ready for anything. The Redskins, which lost to Russia in a regional semifinal last year, saw early leads evaporate against both Tri-County North and Minster and had to rally.
“It dawned on me early that it was going to be a close game no matter what since we didn’t capitalize early today, but credit to all these guys, because they can win close games,” Sanders said. “It’s great. I’m so happy for these kids with all the work they put in during the winter, the thousands and thousands of swings. It’s great.”
A little mustache power would be welcome when the Redskins play in Columbus next Friday.
Sanders said Billing, who’s hitting about .375, is a great example of why the Redskins will be playing for a state title. Billing struggled through Fort Loramie’s 6-4 stretch the first few weeks of the season but has come on big since.
“Down the home stretch, we told CJ not to do so much,” Sanders said. “He’s a strong kid with a great bat. You don’t swing in a manner that’s out of control, just stay disciplined, and the ball will go on its own. He’s taken that to heart and he’s on it now.
“…All of our guys have worked hard to get better, and I’m so proud of them.”
Fort Loramie’s rally started in the fifth when Shane Hilgefort hit a single to center field with one out. Carter Mescher and Dylan Albers then walked to load the bases for Billing. Billing hit the first pitch he saw over the left-field fence to bring the Redskins within 6-5.
Billing came up big again in the sixth to put Fort Loramie ahead.
Rosengarten reached on an error to start the inning, then Nathan Ratermann hit a sacrifice bunt. Devin Wehrman hit a double to left field, and Shane Hilgefort was then hit by a pitch. After a pop out by Mescher, Cincinnati Christian pitcher Alex Johnson walked Dylan Albers to tie the game 6-6.
Billing then hit a hard ground ball right by Cincinnati Christian third baseman Noah Jordan to put the Redskins ahead 8-6.
The Cougars had a hot start in a 6-1 win over Russia in a regional semifinal on Thursday. It didn’t take them long to get going Friday against Billing, who started.
Smith led the Cougars off in the first inning with a single to left field. Alex Bertram hit a sacrifice bunt to move Smith to second, and after Johnson popped out to shortstop, Jacob Carroll hit a line drive triple that landed on the warning track in left field to score Smith.
Billing hit Cody Anderson, and Winston Spencer followed with a single to left to load the bases. Noah Jordan hit a double to left field to score three runs and put the Cougars up 4-0.
Sanders removed Billing for Rosengarten, who walked Ploetz on four pitches. Rosengarten got out of the inning, however, by getting Carangi to hit a ground ball to third base.
The Redskins pulled within 4-1 in the bottom of the first on an RBI single to right field by Billing.
Fort Loramie left runners at second and third in the second inning. Rosengarten hit a single to third base to lead off the second and Mike Hoying followed with a single on a hard ground ball to center field. Devin Wehrman then grounded out, Hilgefort struck out and Mescher struck out to end the inning.
Cincinnati Christian loaded the bases in the third with one out, but Rosengarten struck out Ploetz and Carangi to get out of trouble.
The Cougars didn’t waste an opportunity to score in the fourth, though.
Smith led off the inning with a single along the left-field line and Bertram hit a sacrifice bunt. Johnson then singled to center field to load the bases and Carroll hit a line drive to deep center to score two runs and boost the lead to 6-1.
Sanders lived near Middletown early this decade and coached his sons in youth leagues in the area. He said he was familiar with many of the Cougars’ players from his time in the area and thought Friday’s game would be tough.
Cincinnati Christian is located in Butler County near Fairfield.
“I know some of those kids, and they’re baseball players,” Sanders said. “Freshmen, sophomores, it doesn’t matter. They’re baseball players. …They’re a great team.”
Kemper picked up the win to push his record to 7-1. Johnson, one of five freshmen for Cincinnati Christian that started, dropped to 1-1 with the loss.
Cincinnati Christian had 10 hits and one error while the Redskins had nine hits and two errors. The Cougars stranded nine runners while Fort Loramie left six runners on base.
Fort Loramie has won 19 out of its last 21 games. The program has made five state appearances, including in 2007 and 2010, when they won Div. IV titles.