AKRON — Russia’s evenness was on display again on Thursday. With the pressure on, the Raiders earned a chance to defend their state title.
Russia pitcher Xavier Phlipot hit a two-out single to right field in the eighth inning to drive in the only run in a Division IV state semifinal and lift the Raiders over St. Henry 1-0 at Canal Park.
“That was incredible,” Russia coach Kevin Phlipot said. “I told our guys the tough part was done, just getting here. There are so many good teams out there, so many opportunities that could have gone against us.
“Getting here was the tough part, and that’s done. I told them, ‘Let’s just go out there and win two ball games.’ But that wasn’t easy either.”
“I think we enjoyed last year more than this,” Phlipot said. “The expectations are through the roof. When you win a state title and return seven starters, you tell me what everyone is thinking. The minute that game was over, ‘we’re going to do it again,’ was some people’s mindset.
“The guys didn’t enjoy the success (in regular season) we were having as much; we’re supposed to do that, that’s expected of us. When we had a little bit of negativity, a little bit of struggle, they took it harder. Guys are wondering why they’re not doing better.
“… Offensively, we’ve struggled a little. But the mentality has been, ‘we over me,’ and once the season has got here, nobody has cared about anything. It’s just win and play the next game.”
Phlipot pitched a complete game. He gave up four hits and walked one batter while striking out five. He pitched a complete game in last year’s state title contest and a complete game in a regional semifinal win over Sugar Grove Berne Union last week.
“Xavier Phlipot, what can you say about that hit,” Phlipot said of his nephew. “He’s a winner. He’s been pitching with his back against the wall. Berne Union, we had to go 0-0 in eight innings, the exact same thing. And he kept putting zeros up. Incredible.”
Jude Counts led off the bottom of the eighth with a perfectly-placed bunt right back at St. Henry pitcher Devin Delzeith, which proved too difficult for Delzieth to even attempt a throw to first.
“We just wanted to get a man on,” Phlipot said. “All I said was to play it by the book. We get a leadoff man on, we’re bunting. Leadoff man gets on, next man bunt strikes. Make sure we get a strike to handle, whether swinging or bunting.”
Ross Fiessinger struck out, but pinch runner Vince Borchers advanced to second on a wild pitch.
“We got fortunate with a ball in the dirt, and did a good job with the dirt ball read to get to second,” Phlipot said.
Russia freshman catcher Cooper Unverferth struck out, but Phlipot hit a line-drive over the head of Ethan Nietfeld at second base into right field for a single. Borchers scored from second to give the Raiders a 1-0 victory.
“He was tiring there late and wasn’t feeling the best,” Phlipot said. He said Phlipot was going to be removed from the mound in the ninth in favor of freshman reliever Cooper Francis.
“I was concerned. He was on the hook for so much. You saw the bullpen was ready to go sixth inning on. I didn’t like the way he was pitching. His off speed was a little hit and miss. …He was getting enough fly balls and weak pop ups that we kept saying, ‘one more, one more.’ And the leadoff man never got on, so we just stuck with him.”
Russia advances to face the winner of Tiffin Calvert vs. Berlin Hiland in the Div. IV state final, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday in Akron. Calvert and Hiland were scheduled to play Thursday evening in Akron.
Russia sophomore Braylon Cordonnier is slated to start; he pitched in district and regional final wins over Miami Valley Christian Academy and Southeastern the last two weeks.
“We’re ready to go,” Phlipot said. “… The group of kids we have and the experience — we’ve been in so many tight ball games, it could come out and bite us. But we are prepared for this. That’s my biggest message for them: who can enjoy the moment?
“It’s just another game. We know it’s not, but the team that can just sit back, relax and think that it’s just another game and play that way, care free and easy and forget about the big moment and enjoy it, has a leg up.”
Delzeith pitched a complete game. He gave up one earned run on four hits and one walk and struck out five batters in 7 2/3 innings.
“He pitched his heart out,” Phlipot said. “Three hits through seven innings and no runs. He did his job. Xavier just matched him. Both those kids, on the biggest stage, pitched probably the best games of their careers. Not a ton of strikeouts, but they were pitching, the true definition of pitching.”
The Redskins finish 24-7.
The Raiders avoided disaster in the top of the sixth.
Delzeith hit a single to third base on a bunt. It was a tough play for third baseman Hayden Quinter, and he sent a throw passed first base to foul territory, which allowed Delzeith to advance to second.
Logan Link then singled on a hard grounder to left field and stole second. Bryce Brookhart hit a fly out in foul territory along the third-base line, then Hayden Boeckman hit a hard grounder to second base. Brayden Monnin fielded it and threw home, and Unverferth recorded the out at home plate.
Drew Schwieterman then hit a pop out to first to end the inning.
“The moment has not been too big for us,” Phlipot said. “So many of our games, we were so close, and out away, two strikes away, from our season being over. …We got through that, and the guys are enjoying it. I can see that. These guys in the dugout are having fun, they’re positive, they’re into it and they’re cheering on their teammates like hell to get the job done.”
Unverferth threw St. Henry’s lone base runners in the first and second innings out at second when they tried to steal. The Redskins stranded a runner at second base in the third.
Russia stranded runners on first base in the first and second innings. Unverferth reached on an error in the third, but was thrown out on a sacrifice bunt trying to advance to third.
Both squads went down in order in the fourth and fifth. Russia went down in order in the sixth and seventh. Both teams went down in order in the seventh.
Link hit a two-out single down the left-field line in the eighth, but Brookhart then hit a ground out to short stop for the third out.
The teams met in regular season in the St. Henry Invitational, held on Saturday, April 8. Russia beat the Redskins in the championship game 6-4.
Contact Bryant Billing at (937) 538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.