RUSSIA — A month ago, playing in a regional tournament game was as much a dream to Russia’s baseball team as it was a realistic goal.
After the last few weeks, though, the Raiders aren’t dreaming about winning a regional and earning a second state berth in the last three years — they’re aiming for it.
Russia (13-16) will face Cincinnati Christian (17-5) in a Division IV regional semifinal on Thursday at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield.
The squads — which played in a regional semifinal last year — will face off at 2 p.m., while Minster and Mechanicsburg will play at 5 on Thursday in Springfield. The two winners will play Friday for a regional championship and state berth.
“This was always a goal, but it was kind of a dream a month ago, and it’s kind of surreal to be here now,” Russia senior pitcher Daniel Kearns said before a scrimmage against Versailles on Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s an amazing feeling, and I’m happy we’re back.”
Cincinnati Christian has expected to get to back to Springfield since losing 8-7 to eventual state champion Fort Loramie in a regional final last year.
Another trip to Springfield wasn’t an outlandish goal for Russia entering the season after advancing the previous two years, including in 2017 when the squad finished as Div. IV state runner-up.
But a slow start made the likelihood of another regional appearance seem small to the squad’s players. Russia lost its first seven games of the season and fell to 6-12 after a 9-0 loss to Fort Loramie on April 30.
“It means a little bit more to get here — more satisfying — after the difficulties we went through at the beginning of the year,” Russia coach Kevin Philpot said. “It’s very rewarding to see the team rally and the community rally around us.”
The Raiders had good outings from Kearns from early on but struggled in nearly every other facet. But the squad’s underclassmen and inexperienced seniors drastically cut down on fielding errors, which were a plague during the 0-7 start — including in a 12-11 season-opening loss to Piqua in which the team had nine errors.
“We’ve grown a lot since then,” Kearns said. “If you watched us then, you wouldn’t think that we were a regional team. But this is definitely our peak right now, and that’s what everyone’s goal is going into postseason: play your best baseball and go on a run.”
With the improved fielding, Kearns and senior pitcher Evan Monnier reaching their peak and more timely hitting, Russia has perfected small-ball. The Raiders have won several low-scoring games — including a 1-0 win over Fort Loramie (25-2) in 10 innings in a district semifinal on May 20.
“When we started tournament, getting (to regional) was more hopeful than anything, because we knew Loramie was going to be tough,” Russia senior center fielder Jordan York said. “And they were, and we had that pitcher’s duel like we thought, and we were able to break through there in the 10th. So we’re excited to get back there again and keep the tradition going.”
To advance to Friday’s regional final, Russia will have to beat the Cougars, which they lost to 6-1 in a regional final last year.
The loss was an error-filled one for the Raiders. They committed four errors in the first inning, which helped Cincinnati Christian take a 4-0 lead. Kearns started on the mound and was removed with no outs in the second.
“They were a pretty young team and played phenomenal baseball,” Kearns said. “They pretty much have everyone back now, so it’s going to be a fun one. The odds are against us again, but the odds have been against us a lot, so we really don’t have any pressure.”
Russia managed six hits last season against Cincinnati Christian senior ace pitcher Mitchell Smith. Smith allowed six hits and struck out three batters while allowing three walks.
Smith is one of several returning starters for the Cougars, which lost two players to graduation off last year’s squad. He’s thrown a couple of no-hitters and has a 1.06 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings. Three other pitchers have thrown over 12 innings and have ERA’s under 2.70, including Bryce Jungkunz, who has a 2.69 ERA and has struck out 30 batters in 26 innings.
The Cougars have a .355 team batting average. Smith leads the squad with a .546 average and .649 on-base percentage. He has hit three home runs, two triple and seven doubles. He also leads the squad with 31 RBIs.
Winston Spencer (.433 batting average), Alex Johnson (.419) and Jacob Carroll (.333) are among the team’s other most consistent hitters. Johnson and Carroll have on-base percentages of .500 or better.
“They’re very much the same team we saw last year,” Philpot said. “I’m expecting them to be stronger than what they were last year.”
Kearns will look to cool their bats. He’s had three spectacular outings in his last starts, including against Fort Loramie, when he pitched 9 2/3 innings and allowed five hits with 13 strikeouts.
Kearns (8-3) has an 0.55 ERA on the season. He’s pitched 76 1/3 innings and has struck out 116 batters.
“We expected a lot of things out of him, but he’s gone farther than that,” Philpot said. “The competitor he is, he’s ready to show Cincinnati Christian how good he really is and prove to himself that (last year) was just a fluke. Like any competitor, if you’re not at your best, you want a shot to prove you’re better than that.”
Russia has a .243 team batting average, and no regular player has above a .300 average. Grant Saunders leads the squad with a .299 average while Carter Francis bats .298 and York hits .295. Kearns leads the squad with 17 RBIs while Francis and Will Sherman each have 14.
“We played some really great teams and saw some really great pitching, and that had a lot to do with our slow start,” Philpot said. “… With our lack of offense, we know our style, how we need to play, and the kids have bought into it.”
York said if the squad can beat Fort Loramie — which was the No. 1-ranked team in D-IV in the final state coaches association’s poll — it can beat anybody.
“I think we can keep it rolling,” York said. “Anything’s possible.”
Minster vs. Mechanicsburg
Minster (20-7) will look to keep its hot hitting going in the second regional semifinal on Thursday at Carleton Davidson Stadium.
Mechanicsburg (21-7) finished third in the Ohio Heritage Conference North Division. The Indians, which beat Lehman Catholic 2-1 in 13 innings in a district semifinal last week, have a .340 team batting average and a 3.70 ERA.
Freshmen Aaron Conley and Jake Edwards are Mechancisburg’s best hitters. Conley is batting .473 and has 45 RBIs while Edwards has a .410 batting average and .515 on-base percentage and has driven in 25 runs.
Sophomore Lance Casey is the team’s pitching ace. Casey has a 1.86 ERA and has struck out 42 batters in 49 innings of work.
The Wildcats won their first six games but struggled in the middle of the season and dropped to 10-7 after a 4-1 loss to Parkway on May 2. They have won 10 straight since and have outscored opponents 99-11 in that time.
Minster has a team .321 batting average. Senior Jack Heitbrink and junior Jack Olberding have the two best batting averages of the squad. Heitbrink is batting .494 and has driven in 32 runs while Olberding has batted .457 and has 29 RBIs to his credit.
Junior Austin Brown is the team’s ace pitcher. Brown, a lefty, has a 0.56 ERA and has struck out 26 batters in 25 innings of work. Heitbrink also frequently takes the mound and pitched a complete game in an 11-2 win over New Bremen last Friday in a district final. Heitbrink has a 1.37 ERA with 38 strikeouts in 46 innings of work.
Versailles vs. Middletown Madison
After losing in district finals the last two years, the Tigers rallied to beat Dayton Christian 13-10 last week. Now they will try to earn their first state berth since 2016.
Versailles (16-9) will face Middletown Madison in a D-III regional semifinal game at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Wright State University’s Nischwitz Stadium. Roger Bacon and Cincinnati Country Day will face off at 2 on Thursday in a semifinal, and the two semifinal winners will play in a regional final on Friday in Fairborn.
Madison (24-6) finished second in the Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division and has won six straight games. The Mohawks have won 14 of their last 16 games, with one loss coming against Dayton Christian on May 6.
Madison has a .355 team batting average and a 3.02 team ERA. Seniors Cameron Svarda and Noah Lehman are the squad’s best hitters. Svarda has a .486 batting average and 35 RBIs while Lehman has a .435 batting average with 17 RBIs.
Junior Tristan Sipple is the team’s pitching ace. He has a 1.06 ERA and has struck out 91 batters in 52 2/3 innings of work.
The Tigers stumbled into tournament play after losing three of their last five regular season games but have eked out two close postseason games. Aside from rallying to beat Dayton Christian, the Tigers edged Jamestown Greeneview 3-2 in a district semifinal.
The Tigers have a .288 team batting average and a 2.78 ERA. Will Eversole and Zach Griesdorn are the team’s two best hitters. Eversole has a .456 batting average and has driven in 24 runs while Griesdorn has a .449 batting average and has driven in 22 runs.
Garrett Toops is the team’s pitching ace. He has a 2.29 ERA and has struck out 33 batters in 45 2/3 innings.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.