SIDNEY — Russia senior catcher Will Sherman has collided with fences before while chasing pop ups. That would likely have been a small price to pay for upsetting Fort Loramie in a Division IV district semifinal in Monday — running straight into a brick wall probably would have been worth it to Sherman and all on Russia’s team.
Sherman didn’t have worry about any collision on Monday. He stopped a couple of feet short of the fence along the first-base line at Sidney High School while making a diving catch to seal the Raiders’ 1-0 extra-innings victory over the Redskins.
The victory advances Russia to a district final against Newton on Wednesday at Versailles High School. The Indians (22-4) beat Franklin-Monroe 6-0 in a district semifinal on Monday in Troy to advance.
It was an improbable victory for the Raiders (12-16), who lost their first seven games and finished a distant third in Shelby County Athletic League play this season.
Fort Loramie (25-2), which was the No. 1 ranked team in Div. IV in the final state coaches’ poll that was released on Tuesday, steamrolled over most of its opponents and looked like a serious contender to repeat as state champions. The Redskins outscored SCAL teams 139-6 in league play, including 2-0 and 9-0 wins over the Raiders.
But on Monday, Russia was able to do what no SCAL or any other team had done to the hot-hitting Redskins this year: hold them scoreless.
“They’re still the best team in the state,” Russia coach Kevin Philpot said. “Hands down, the best team in the state. Having no score through 10 innings, that’s incredible. And (Jared) Middendorf threw a whale of a game too. A performance like that is what we expected out of him as well.
“There’s a lot of heavy hearts over there (in Fort Loramie’s dugout) and I know they’re disappointed, but they’ve got nothing to be disappointed in themselves. They’re an incredible group and (coach) Jeff Sanders is first class; they all are. A lot of respect for them.”
The victory will be talked about for decades to come in Russia. The Raiders had lost their previous three baseball matchups with Russia, and some of team’s seniors has been frustrated by Fort Loramie in other sports as well — including basketball tournament losses in 2018, 2017 and 2016.
“Anytime beating Loramie, whether it’s the first game of the season or the last game, it never gets old,” Sherman said. “… We had to work really hard for this. It wasn’t just today, it was all year, really. We had to work hard to just grind it out to get to this point.”
Sherman’s catch was one of several big defensive plays that helped aid senior left-hander Daniel Kearns’ stellar pitching effort. Jordan York made a couple of difficult catches in center field while third baseman Carter Francis and second baseman Drew Sherman had to rush throws to first a couple of times with runners on base after fielding slow grounders or bunts.
But the biggest stop came in the first inning.
Fort Loramie had runners at third and second with two outs when Ben Barhorst hit a line drive toward right field. Freshman outfielder Aiden Shappie raced to the hit and made a diving catch while falling to grass that was still soaked from rain that moved through the area over the weekend.
Shappie struggled at the plate against Middendorf, who started and pitched 8 2/3 innings. But Shappie came up big against reliever Nathan Raterman in the tenth inning. He hit a single to left field with one out, moved to second on a sacrifice groundout and then scored after Jordan York hit a double to right field.
“Aiden had struck out his first two at bats, but I told him there late that he had already saved the game for us,” Philpot said. “He was down. But I reminded him that he’d already saved this for us in the first inning, so anything he does is a bonus.
“That was the big key this entire game. Forget about what happened; it’s the next at-bat that is your most important. He got it going there for us.”
Kearns was the biggest piece of the key to the victory, though. He pitched 9 2/3 innings and struck out 13 batters while allowing five hits and two walks.
“He was on,” Philpot said. “You can’t expect someone to do that, but he’s one of the best around, and at the end, you do expect to see performances like this.”
One of Kearns’ biggest moments on the mound came in the seventh after Fort Loramie loaded the bases on an error, defensive indifference and an intentional walk. Kearns struck out Shane Hilgefort on three pitches, struck out Middendorf after working up a full count and then coaxed a routine flyout from leadoff hitter Carter Mescher.
“We were one pitch from going home,” Philpot said. “We were done. He willed us through.”
The game was one were tension increased as each inning went by, each big defensive play was made, each strikeout was recorded. The large crowd of about 600 fans that lined the fences on both sides of the field to the outfield were largely quiet outside of cheering on the few defensive plays and strikeouts.
Both teams stranded runners on third and second in the first inning, then struggled to get runners on base the rest of the way.
Fort Loramie’s other best chance to score came after Devin Wehrman got a double in the fourth with one out but was thrown out at third trying to stretch it into a triple. The Raiders got two runners to third and second with one out in the ninth, only to see the next two batters strike out.
Russia finally turned the tension into celebration in the 10th.
“We just kept getting chances,” Kearns said. “We kept our heads in the game and battled. They’re amazing team with amazing hitters, and we battled off their potential winning runs. We just stuck together as a team the whole way through and didn’t get down on ourselves or too up on ourselves. We just stuck with it and got an amazing win.”
Russia will try to win its third consecutive district championship on Wednesday in Versailles. The squad won district titles in four of their previous five seasons.
But regardless of what happens Wednesday, Philpot said he’s proud of the growth the team has shown this season, including six losses by nine or more runs.
“The seniors stuck it out and believed and helped the underclassmen out practice-by-practice and game-by-game,” Philpot said. “We slowly got some confidence and got some big wins to turn things around.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.