VERSAILLES — Losing to area powers like Minster, Anna, Coldwater and Fort Loramie isn’t something Russia coach Kevin Philpot worries too much about, especially early in a season.
But losing to Botkins and Fairlawn? That’s not something the Raiders — which are used to winning Shelby County Athletic League titles — have done very often, especially in recent memory.
The Raiders were asking questions after suffering losses to the Trojans and Jets in the first two weeks of the season. They sat at 1-8 overall and 0-4 in SCAL play after a demoralizing 13-1 defeat on their home field to Fairlawn on April 8.
“Those hurt,” Philpot, a fifth-year coach, said. “We did question ourselves. ‘How good are we? How bad are we?’”
Six weeks later, Russia has given itself and the area an answer: still pretty good.
The Raiders (13-16) won their third consecutive district championship and fourth in the last five years with a 3-1 victory over Newton on Wednesday at Versailles High School. The victory earns the squad another trip to Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield, which has become a yearly pilgrimage.
“That says we’re consistent,” Philpot said. “When I came here, it’s what I strived to do, carry on what coach (Rick) Gold had already started before me. It just says a lot about the consistency of these kids, their determination and willingness to work hard to get better.
“We’ve had big senior classes the last couple of years but have found a way to fill voids and keep things going.”
It took a while to fill the voids early in the season. Though Russia senior left-handed ace Daniel Kearns had good outings on the mound from the get-go, he and most of the rest of the team struggled at the plate and struggled in the field — including in a season-opening loss to Piqua in which the squad committed nine errors.
Philpot said the team’s seniors had a meeting sometime shortly after the 0-7 start.
“At that point, we realized winning (the SCAL) was pretty much out and kind of on the back burner because we had to have a lot of help,” Philpot said. “Next thing was the cliché of just one day, one practice at a time. Find ways to get yourself better and help the team get better.
“Just believing that we still had a shot was big. I believed in them, and they believed. It was a long shot, but with Daniel Kearns and Evan Monnier (pitching), those two guys could get us to districts. Now, they’ve gotten us through districts.”
Monnier, who pitched a complete game against Newton and allowed five hits with seven strikeouts, said he and the rest of the team’s experienced players focused on helping underclassmen and inexperienced upperclassmen improve.
“With all the adversity we’ve faced, I feel we’ve come together as a group a lot more this year than in years past,” Monnier said. “We’re kind of young and kind of not. We’ve got eight seniors, but for a lot of them, it’s only their first or second year.
“… Really, we believed all year and rallied around coach (Philpot)’s idea that we’ve just got to keep working every day. But as the schedule came on, we got together and started working, and I’d say the Anna game was our big turning point to where we were ready for tournament.”
It was apparent early on the Raiders weren’t going to be slugging their way to victories; they average 3.9 runs per game. But they cut down on the errors as the season went on and improved their defense and pitching consistency. They perfected small-ball at the plate as the year went on and picked up many low-scoring victories — and the occasional run-rule win, like a 12-2 victory over Botkins on April 29.
Philpot said a 4-2 win over neighbor Versailles (15-9) on May 3 was the first sign the team was turning the corner and said the 2-1 victory over Anna (17-9) on May 11 was a big spark.
“The Anna game was reassurance,” Philpot said. “The game meant nothing because we were both leaning towards tournament and the league was decided. We were hesitant to take Daniel out of that one (early) and let him take it easy, but as it kept going on, we left him in there because it was important for us to win a big game and get confidence towards the tournament.”
The Raiders won the regional in 2017, when they finished as state runner-up after to Minster. They lost a close game in a regional semifinal in 2015 and lost 6-1 to Cincinnati Christian last year in an error-filled outing.
A regional semifinal rematch with the Cougars is possible this year. Cincinnati Christian will conclude a district final against Tri-County North on Friday at Carlisle High School. The teams began playing on Wednesday, but the game was suspended with no score in the second inning due to rain.
Friday’s winner will face Russia at 2 p.m. on Thursday in Springfield. Though Philpot said the team is hopeful to keep the tournament run going next week, he said it’s a big accomplishment for the group to get back.
“This year was a little bit questionable whether we could (win a district) again, but I thought with no matter how the season went, we always have a chance,” Philpot said. “As long as you’re playing your best ball towards the end of the season, you’ve got a chance. We’ve had just enough pitching towards the end of the season to make things happen.”
Monnier said the team is capable of earning a second state berth in three years and pointed to big defensive plays the squad made against Newton and in Monday’s district semifinal upset of No. 1-ranked Fort Loramie as proof. Among them were diving catches by Jordan York and Aiden Shappie in the outfield and big stops and throws by third baseman Carter Francis and second baseman Drew Sherman.
“Everyone on the team is working hard and making great plays,” Monnier said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.