VERSAILLES — Russia senior pitcher Evan Monnier is looking forward to attending Sinclair Community College this fall. But he’s excited for another trip to Wittenberg University before he does.
Monnier pitched a solid game in a Division IV district final on Wednesday in Versailles to help the Raiders earn their third consecutive district championship and regional berth with a 3-1 victory over Newton.
Russia advances to play in a regional semifinal next Thursday at Carleton Davidson Stadium, the 1,100-seat facility owned by the city of Springfield that Wittenberg plays in. The Raiders will face the winner of the Cincinnati Christian vs. Tri-County North district final, which was suspended due to rain with no score in the second inning on Wednesday and will be finished on Thursday.
“It’s an amazing feeling, getting to play at Wittenberg,” Monnier said. “Getting to see all the Raider fans down there in the stadium, it’s just a different kind of feeling because it’s such a big stadium.”
The Raiders (13-16) advanced to Wednesday’s district final by beating Fort Loramie on Monday behind a solid pitching performance by Daniel Kearns. Monnier had an equally impressive outing against the Indians.
Newton (22-5) scored one run on three hits in the first inning but didn’t have another baserunner until the sixth. Monnier finished with one earned run on five hits and one walk. He was also aided by several big defensive plays, including a diving catch by Jordan York in center field in the fourth inning.
“After that first inning, I was able to hit the corners a lot better,” Monnier, who will study criminal justice, said. “Coach likes to set up outside, and I was able to hit that spot. Mixing the curveball in there really kept them off balance tonight.”
Monnier struck out seven batters, including all three he faced in the third inning.
“He cruised along there,” Russia fifth-year coach Kevin Philpot said.
Though it’s the program’s third consecutive district title and the fourth in the last five years, it may be the most memorable in that span. Russia started the season 0-7 and was 10-15 entering the tournament with a No. 6 seed in the Sidney D-IV sectional.
But the Raiders’ pitching and defense has been awesome since the beginning of postseason play. They allowed an average of 5.3 runs per game before tournament play but have allowed one run in their three tournament contests.
“Our goals are usually to win league, sectional and districts,” Philpot said. “Obviously with that start, league was taken away right away. We had to look at things and re-evaluate, but I said it was going to be so much more satisfying once we turned it around.
“We may not get our (league) goal that we wanted at the beginning of the year, but if we started playing well and had some big wins and signature moments, it’s going to feel so much better from where we started.”
If there were any worries by Russia fans of a letdown after Monday’s win over No. 1 state-ranked Fort Loramie, the squad eased them early. The Raiders scored two runs on three hits in the bottom of the first inning to take a 2-1 lead, then added one run on two hits in the third.
“There was a little question of ‘Hey, how are we going to act?’” Philpot said. “But we came out and everyone was confident. We were like, ‘Hey, we won last time, so we might as well keep this thing rolling.’”
The Indians got to work in the first inning after Ryan Mollette hit a bunt single. Mollette later stole second base, but the next two batters hit into a flyout and struck out. But Cameron Caldwell followed by smacking a fly ball to left field to score Mollette and put Newton up 1-0.
Ross Ferrell hit a single before the end of the first, but Monnier coaxed a flyout by Caden Sweitzer to end the inning.
“The game was on the line there in the first inning,” Philpot said. “… With a two-out hit, we’re staring at 3-0 in the first inning, and with our offense, yeah, it was a little bit of a tense moment there. But the big thing is how we reacted by getting two runs on there, and that was kind of a sigh of relief.”
Monnier settled down after the first and retired the next 15 batters he faced between the first and sixth innings.
“Really it was just changing it up after that, getting a first pitch curveball for a strike, trying to stay ahead of batters,” Monnier said. “Blowing that fastball by them on the corner was the go-to pitch. It was really working all night.”
Russia grabbed the lead in the bottom half of the first.
After Monnier struck out to end the inning, Jordan York hit a ground ball to shortstop and was initially called out by the first-base umpire. But after a discussion among the three umpires, the call was reversed and York was ruled safe due to the first baseman not putting his foot on the bag after having to jump to catch the throw.
“That was big,” Philpot said. “We don’t score if we don’t get it reversed. I’m happy (the umpires) got together and talked it out.”
Carter Francis followed with a line-drive single to left field, then Will Sherman hit a fielder’s choice that resulted in York being thrown out at third. But Grant Saunders hit a single to shallow center field to drive in one run. After Kearns was intentionally walked, Gavin George followed with a line-drive single up the middle to bring home another run and put Russia ahead 2-1.
“We still had to get a couple of big hits there, and though we had the momentum after getting the call there, we had to battle and had to get the job done,” Philpot said. “We had to battle to take advantage of the situation. That’s what we’ve been lacking from time to time.”
Sherman led off the third with a double after he was awarded second base due to interference by Newton first baseman Charlie Walker.
Saunders beat out a bunt single he hit to third base. Sherman was later thrown out in a rundown between third and home plate, but George followed by hitting a grounder to third and reached on an infield error. Saunders scored from third on the error to push the lead to 3-1.
Newton got two runners on base with two outs in the sixth but advanced neither further than second. Mitchell Montgomery hit a single with two outs in the seventh, but Monnier struck out a pinch hitter to end it.
The Raiders won the regional in 2017 but lost 6-1 to Cincinnati Christian in an error-filled regional semifinal last year. Monnier said the team hopes to have a better outing in Springfield next week.
“We had a shaky season, but that (Fort Loramie) win I really think got the confidence in the dugout up,” Monnier said. “Everybody is just kind of happy right now. We’re playing a lot better than we were and we’ve got our momentum going in the right direction in tournament time. We’re just having fun now.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.