Twenty-nine more state titles have followed since Russia’s baseball team became the first Shelby County Athletic League program to win a championship.
When you reference the list of state championships at scalsports.com, you’ll see that Russia’s 1971 “ice breaker” was the start of something big. It’s now been almost 50 years since the Raiders brought home the top trophy in small school baseball. Saturday’s doubleheader with Fort Recovery will be the platform to celebrate the half century milestone which is both ironic and appropriate since Recovery won the basketball state crown that same year.
The 1971 championship season actually began in 1970 since Shelby County played fall baseball back then. A trio of classic matchups with archrival Fort Loramie provided the springboard to the title. Loramie nullified a Neal Schafer no-hitter in the fall for a 3-0 verdict before Russia took both spring encounters by a combined three runs including the sectional finals. Over the years I’ve had many Russia players tell me that Loramie was the best opponent they faced in 1970-71.
The Raiders took the district with wins over New Miami and Westmont. The Urbana regional saw victories over Botkins and Clinton Massie, and it was on to Columbus in the quest to win it all. The eventual champs had a 20 year reunion in 1991 that enabled me to get the inside story on the accomplishment.
Head coach Roger Eckenwiler correctly presumed that the Friday state semifinal with Portsmouth East would determine the state champion. Two runs in the bottom of the sixth produced a 3-2 win behind Neal Schafer with John Grogean contributing three hits. Old Fort won its semifinal to set the Saturday final matchup at Ohio State’s Trautman Field.
Sultry weather prevailed throughout the weekend in the capital city, and when the air conditioning failed at the team hotel on championship eve, the squad got little sleep prior to the mid-morning contest.
Eckenwiler decided to start Dave Francis on the mound and save Neal Schafer in reserve. When one pitched, the other played shortstop. Thus the starting lineup and batting order: Ron Schulze-CF, Gary Schulze-2B, Dave Francis-P, Don Cordonnier-1B, Rick Bensman-3B, Dan Goubeaux-C, Rick Gaier-RF, John Grogean-LF, and Neal Schafer-SS.
The Raiders led only 4-3 after five innings but erupted for nine markers in the next two frames in a 13-5 decision. Francis was the winning hurler as he went four innings with no earned runs. Schafer finished up for a save. Despite no re-entry rule or DH in those days, Eckenwiler was able to get 16 players into the game.
Ron Schulze had two singles, one double, a triple, a grand slam homer, five runs scored, and 6 RBIs. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t find his regular Johnny Bench “33” bat. He substituted a “34” Ernie Banks model and went on to the best overall offensive day in state tourney history. The Banks bat and grand slam ball are still in the proud possession of Ron Schulze, despite his next generation once using them in a backyard game.
This team had grown up on baseball. Many of their dads played as adults in the old Western Ohio League. The boys played continuously from March through October. There were 19 senior boys in the class of 1971. Ten were on the baseball roster and seven were starters. Most didn’t do basketball in the winter and it wasn’t due to any coaching friction between the two sports since Eckenwiler coached both.
Future Cleveland minor leaguer Cordonnier credited Eckenwiler’s “intensity and respect of every opponent” as keys to his nine years of Russia coaching success (1967-76). Assistant and future head coach Jon Heffner specialized in pitching and threw intense batting practice, “better than what they faced in games” according to the head coach. Eckenwiler was superstitious. Once the season began, no more haircuts. He always wore low cut black tennis shoes along with a windbreaker, regardless of weather.
The arrival back home is always special for a state champion. Fifty years later, Ron Schulze still smiles when he recalls that “we were treated like kings.” When it happened in 1971, the focus was on the current competitive accomplishment rather than its place in SCAL athletic history. Fifty years later, the perspective changes.
The Shelby County Athletic League has a long and proud tradition that includes 30 state team championships beginning with 1971 Russia baseball. Anna baseball won it all a year later and repeated in 1980. The first non-baseball title was Fort Loramie boys basketball in 1977. The first girls crown was Anna basketball in 1981.
1971 baseball remains Russia’s only state team title but its stature has grown over the past five decades. Something very special happened on Saturday, June 5, 1971. Nice job guys…and thanks to your community for remembering. Enjoy your reunion.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross joined the local sports media in 1975, the same year he fell in love with the Shelby County Athletic League.