It’s not likely that the slick, middle-of-the-diamond fielding plays by the 23-6 Russia Raiders last Friday brought back memories of Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson, the fantastic double-play duo on the great New York Yankees teams in the early 1960’s.
Braylon Cordonnier and Brayden Monnin will never get that kind of notoriety “turning two” like Tony and Bobby, but they were every bit as efficient… more than once.
The Russia combo fashioned three, swift, twin-killings and almost a fourth as the club’s defense really stood out in Friday’s 7-1 Division IV regional baseball championship win over Fort Loramie (24-7) at Cincinnati Princeton High School.
The Raiders’ also combined consistently good pitching from Xavier Phlipot with just enough timely hitting to take the region title.
“This was our goal,” said Russia head coach Kevin Phlipot. “To get through the sectional, district and a tough regional, before returning to the state tournament.”
Phlipot added, “Our expectations were very high. So we’re really excited about reaching the state. This is what we were shooting for!”
Newark Catholic (25-6), rated fourth in the final statewide coaches association poll and state champs seven times in the current head coach’s 13 state appearances, is Russia’s state semifinal opponent on Thursday at 10 a.m. at Akron’s Canal Park.
Live local media coverage begins Thursday at 9:30 on ScoresBroadcast.com and on WMVR radio. If Russia wins, state championship coverage starts on Saturday at 9:30 a.m., the same time.
Phlipot’s Raiders hope to use the triumph over Fort Loramie as a stepping stone to beating Newark Catholic much like 2017 when they topped the Redskins, 8-4, and the Green Wave, 3-2, in the regional at Springfield. Newark was the two-time defending state champ that season.
Russia then edged Dalton in the state semifinal, 7-6, before dropping a heartbreaker to Minster, 2-1, in the state title game on a walk-off, seventh inning single.
Thursday marks Russia’s fourth appearance at the state tourney in 51 years. The Raiders also lost in the championship contest in 1975, four years after winning the small-school title in 1971.
That year, Russia routed Old Fort, 13-5, to win the crown. The Raiders won a 3-2 cliffhanger over Portsmouth East in the state semifinal. In 1975, Russia trimmed Old Fort, 7-5, in the state semi, before falling to Lucasville Valley in the title game.
The regional tourney those two seasons was held in Urbana. Roger Eckenwiler was the Raiders’ head baseball coach during the ‘71 and ‘75 state tournament runs.
Newark Catholic’s head coach is John Cannizzaro, who finishes this month his 25th year at the helm of the Green Wave program. The school takes part in the 11-school Licking County League which includes numerous D-I, D-II and D-III programs. Cannizzaro’s teams have won 74 percent of their games over the years.
Two righthanders — Shae Mummey, six feet tall, and Eli Morris, who is 6-3 — top the NC pitching staff. Mummey is 6-0 with a 1.9 earned run average. Morris is 7-3 with a 2.0 ERA. Each averages less than a strike out per inning.
Offensively, Brian McAnally, Sam Muetzel and Joe Stanley all hit above .400. McAnally and Morris have each knocked in over 30 runs. The team has clouted nine homers and 54 doubles.
Defense may not be an NC strong suit. The club has committed 60 errors on the year.
For Russia, defense continues to go a long way.
“Today, Braylon and Brayden were a pair of “pros” — two smooth operators who looked natural completing DP’s,” remarked Jack Kramer of ScoresBroadcast after the Russia region final victory.
The highly versatile Russia team had Monnin in left field the day before when Grant Saunders pitched. Cordonnier was at second base during that game.
The transition by Cordonnier and Monnin on Friday to defending the center of the infield was flawless and seamless. They snuffed out several potential Fort Loramie rallies.
The Redskins defense was prominent, too, but for the wrong reasons. It committed one miscue after another. Seven in all.
Before the Russia triumph that advanced the Raiders to the state semi, Kramer asked broadcast partner Chuck McBee what the difference would be in a game as important as a regional championship, with a final-four berth on the line.
“You can’t have a couple innings on defense when you give the opposing offense an extra fourth out,” McBee said. “A mistake-free defense that completes the routine plays and pitching to contact with a limited number of walks will combine to win the mighty big games like this one today.”
Well, not only did Fort Loramie give Russia an extra out in the four-run third inning, the Redskins gifted the Raiders a fifth and sixth out, as well.
End result: a commanding 4-0 Russia bulge after three innings.
“That’s baseball,” said Fort Loramie Coach Jeff Sanders, noting that a contest can be won or lost by the performance level of any one of the game’s three major elements: defense, offense and pitching.
“Oddly enough, this was clearly the best defensive club of my four Redskins teams,” he said.
The 2022 Fort Loramie unit, which replaced six of eight defensive starters from 2021, made, on average, only a couple errors every three to four games. The Redskins had committed only 20 “boots” heading into June. Quite a remarkable feat over a 30-game season.
Furthermore, this spring wasn’t conducive to playing extremely “clean” baseball because schedules were often interrupted by several days of wet, cool weather. In fact, the month of May in west central Ohio was the rainiest ever.
Yet, the Redskins produced an excellent, less than ten-error total over that entire month, before the defensive anomaly on June 3.
Russia coach Phlipot noted that his team’s defense was also very much sub-par last June when the two schools met in the 2021 regional final.
“We flipped the script,” Phlipot said. “We lost by the same score a year ago.”
The Russia coach said he was very pleased his club was able to capitalize with key base hits that took advantage of the Fort Loramie misplays.
Jared Poling, Brayden Monnin and Xavier Phlipot cracked singles in the third when Russia batted around and plated four. Jude Counts and Aiden Shappie stroked singles in the sixth when Russia tacked on two more.
Fort Loramie banged out a couple more hits than Russia, but left the bases full with no one out in the second and left two runners aboard with no one out in the third.
Ty Ruhenkamp smacked three singles for the Redskins; Derek Meyer and Evan Eilerman each spanked two singles.
Russia hurler Phlipot scattered the Fort Loramie hits and kept batters off balance with a variety of speeds and breaking pitches. Lefthander Meyer of Fort Loramie also threw extremely well and deserved better fate, allowing only two earned runs and six hits.
Despite Fort Loramie’s sloppy performance, catcher Owen Pleiman produced the day’s best defensive effort with a brilliant sliding catch of a foul ball at the edge of the screen 60 feet behind home plate.
Russia’s win gave the Raiders two triumphs in three outings versus Fort Loramie this season.
The Shelby County Athletic League co-champs drew the watchful eye of Newark Catholic scouts over the last two weeks.
“We have always had great respect for Russia and Fort Loramie,” said NC Coach Cannizzaro. “The Redskins shut us out in two state championship games.”
Five years ago, Cannizzaro recalled, his team outslugged Russia at the plate with ten hits in the first four innings but could only notch two runs.
“Russia played better defense, turned a critical double play and picked one of our runners off first base in the seventh,” Cannizzaro said. “We even gave them a run by committing an interference between third and home.”
He, too, could have added, “Well, that’s baseball.” And he would have been right on.
Russia hopes its own special blend of efficient defense, offense and pitching continues, with a little help from the opposition.