NEW LEBANON — Russia earned a district title on Thursday much the same way it earned its other 24 wins this season: solid pitching and enough hitting when needed. The squad is hoping the same formula will result in two more wins next week and a state berth.
Russia took the lead in the first inning and cruised to a 4-0 win over Felicity-Franklin in a Division IV district final on Thursday at Dixie High School.
It’s the fourth consecutive season the squad has won a district title. The Raiders (25-5) advance to face Lancaster Fisher Catholic in a regional semifinal on Thursday at Cincinnati Princeton High School.
Russia, which has won 16 consecutive games, scored one run on two hits in the first to take control, then added two runs on two hits in the third to clinch it.
They didn’t need many runs behind the pitching effort of Xavier Philpot, who pitched a complete game and struck out nine batters while walking two and giving up three hits.
“It was outstanding,” Russia coach Kevin Philpot said. “He battled the first inning. I don’t know if it was a little nerves or a little excitement. Everything he was throwing was high in the zone. But we had a nice defensive play by Zane (Shappie) in center field to run one down, and that helped.
“He came back the second inning still a little shaky. His off-speed curve ball was bouncing around a little, but after that, it looked like him of old. His changeup was working and he was throwing some good curve balls.”
Shappie’s running catch for the first out of the first inning wasn’t the only impressive defensive play. The Raiders, which didn’t commit an error, turned a 5-6-3 double play to end the sixth.
“That’s what we do,” Philpot said. “We pitch, we play defense, and we get the bunt down. You could see that in the (third) inning, and from time to time, (opponents) help us out on that.”
Bunts helped Russia pull away in the third.
Xavier Philpot led off the inning with a single on a hard ground ball that went into center field. Drew Sherman then laid down a bunt along the third base line and reached first while Philpot advanced to third.
Grant Saunders then hit a hard grounder to Felicity-Franklin shortstop Cameron Helton, who fell down after bending over to field the ball while trying to turn to throw to first. Philpot scored on the play to push the lead to 2-0.
Aiden Shappie then hit a bunt single back to pitcher Garrett Taulbee to load the bases. Hayden Quinter then grounded into a fielder’s choice, which resulted in Sherman being thrown out at home. But Taulbee then hit Jared Poling to force another run to score and increase the lead to 3-0.
Russia left the bases loaded after a fly out and ground out. The squad left eight runners on base in the game.
“We had so many opportunities,” Kevin Philpot said. “We were getting a run here and a run there, but in looking at the scoreboard, you’re like, ‘It’s only 4-0?’ We left a lot of guys on base. We could have really blown it open. Nobody really had a big hit. We had a couple hits to score a run here or there.
“That’s what we’ve done all year. We pitch, we play defense, we do the little things and we hit just enough to get it done.”
Zane Shappie led off the first inning with a line-drive triple to right field, then Xavier Philpot drove him in on a line-drive single to center field to give the team a 1-0 lead.
“That was big. You always want to play ahead,” Kevin Philpot said. “We go after a run early and hopefully can just add on, because we’re confident in who we throw out there. Just get a lead on hold on and add on from there. The recipe has worked for us all year.”
Xavier Philpot walked two batters in the bottom of the first but struck out Tate Liming to strand runners on second and third. The Cardinals didn’t have a runner get past first base the rest of the evening.
The Raiders final run came in the fifth. Aiden Shappie reached on a dropped third strike, then moved to third after Quinter hit a single to center field. Poling drove Shappie in on a sacrifice fly to center field.
Russia is scheduled to face Lancaster Fisher Catholic (23-4) in a Div. IV regional semifinal at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Cincinnati Princeton. Fort Loramie will face Cedarville in a semifinal at 2 p.m. The winners will meet at 5 on Friday for a regional final.
“We’re confident,” Kevin Philpot said. “We’re just playing well. We’re playing with each other, helping each other out and backing each other up.”
Russia won the D-IV Southwest region in 2017 and lost in semifinals in 2018 and 2019. Philpot said he thinks the squad has the pitching depth to win the regional behind ace Grant Saunders, Philpot, Ross Fiessinger and reliever Aiden Shappie.
“We’re confident that we can hold any offense in check with those guys,” Philpot said. “Obviously with high school kids you never know, but hopefully we can continue to pitch well next week and get some timely hitting.”
Fisher Catholic scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth to break a 4-4 tie and held on to beat perennial power Newark Catholic in a district final on Thursday. The squad has won 11 of their last 12 games, with the lone loss being a 6-5 defeat last Friday by Lancaster, which earned a Division I district title.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.