Final Four Awaits St. Clairsville

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Tom Sliva said in March that he had a good feeling about his 2019 St. Clairsville baseball team.

But did he think it could march all the way to the state tournament? In a way, yes. Yes he did.

“We really thought we had a talented team that could play good baseball,” he said.

The OVAC, Buckeye 8 and EOBL were all on Sliva’s radar as hardware the Red Devils could take home before all was said and done in 2019. But in the back of his mind, if everything broke right, he didn’t know why his team couldn’t be in Athens at the end of May playing in the regional.

“I always believe that if you get the regional, then you take your chances,” he said. “I did. You never give up on it. I never let (the players) give up on it. I kept pushing. Let’s keep our heads up. I know what it takes to win and they did.”

St. Clairsville got its kinks worked out during the regular season. And a storybook postseason that included victories against two teams it lost to previously has it in the state tournament for the third time, this time against Gilmour Academy.

“Football guys always want to be practicing the week of Thanksgiving and baseball guys always want to be practicing in June,” Sliva smiled earlier this week as his team worked out in the cage.

“We’re really excited we still have to come up here. It started in January with winter conditioning and we’re still going. So, that’s pretty good.”

The Red Devils (20-10) and Lancers (24-6) will get Saturday’s action underway at Akron’s Canal Park with a 10 a.m. first pitch. Dayton Chaminade Julienne (25-2) and Van Wert (27-2) will play the other semifinal at 1 p.m. All of the state semifinalists were top seeds in their district, with the exception of St. Clairsville (No. 8).

St. Clairsville won the Buckeye 8 and EOBL crowns, and reached the OVAC 4A Tournament. But the regular season was far from a masterpiece. Most coaches will say, though, regular seasons are for working out any bugs, with eyes focused on the tournament. Sliva is no different.

“We’ve said many times the season starts in May, the second week of May,” he said.

The Red Devils looked like anything but a team that was championship caliber in the early going, Sliva recalled, but he said there was plenty of time to get it out of the doldrums.

“For some reason early, we couldn’t get everything to work together at the same time,” he said. “It we pitched well, we couldn’t hit worth a crap. Or, we couldn’t field the ball or vice versa.

“I don’t think we were playing well as a team then, and I don’t think they were working very hard then.”

As the season progressed, the team came together, thanks in part to the seniors, Sliva said, who helped right the ship and get it steered in a more positive direction.

“They’re the group that brought us together at the end,” he said of Matthew Busby, Peyton Drake, Jakob Jarvis, Kyle Storer and Boe Dudek. “They’re the group that’s had some adversity on and off the field, that’s stuck together and brought us together.

“They’re not afraid of any situation and they bring the underclassmen with them.”

Overall, the team jelled as the season progressed, too — fundamentally and socially.

“That came about through hard work and them just getting together,” Sliva, who has 390 career coaching victories, said. “We had a good, hard talk after one certain game, and from then they straightened up and put their noses more to the grindstone and it’s worked out for them.”

The first results were seen in the district semifinal when the Red Devils rallied with two outs to top Cambridge. Sliva said that was the first sign this team might be on its way to doing something special.

“In 2012, we won a similar game and went on to the ‘Elite Eight’ and lost to Wheelersburg,” said Sliva, leading a team into a team into the state tournament for the first time after more than 20 years of being a head coach at both at both St. Clairsville and St. John.

Victories against Meadowbrook (which downed St. C. in the OVAC semis) in the district final and Steubenville (which beat the Red Devils twice in the regular) in the regional final only improved his team’s belief, Sliva said.

“They’re playing with confidence,” he said. “It’s pitch-by-pitch, out-by-out, inning-by-inning. They’re taking things in that manner and building off that.”

The Red Devils will take that same approach into Saturday’s game against Gilmour Academy, making it’s first state appearance since 2008, when it played Hiland in the D4 semis.

“They’re good,” Sliva said, having scouted the Lancers in their regional final against Cleveland Benedictine last week.

“They have a right-hander (sophomore Ben DeMell) that’s ranked really high. Teams are hitting under .100 against him. He’s good. He’s the real deal.

“But, again, we’re hoping that by doing the little things and by seeing good players like we’ve seen thanks to our schedule, we won’t be shook by it. Hopefully, we’ll go in there, put the ball on the bat and make some plays.”

DeMell leads a Gilmour Academy pitching staff that has a team ERA of 2.33. The Penn State commit has a 10-1 record with a 0.31 ERA.

Jay Fowler, the Lancer’s 10th-year head coach, didn’t say if DeMell would start Saturday, but if he doesn’t, Joe Hollis, who worked six innings last Saturday, might.

“Right now, we’ve been lucky enough to have found a group that’s peaking at the right moment,” said Fowler, who was the team’s pitching coach for four seasons prior to becoming the team’s head coach and was a member of the staff in 2008.

The Lancers started the season 19-1, including posting an 18-game winning streak — a school record. The team’s longest losing streak was four and occurred toward the end of the regular season.

“I think every team’s goal at the start of the year is to get to the state tournament,” Fowler said. “Ours was the same. I liked our team and the guys we had returning and the guys that were getting the opportunity to start at the varsity level for the first time.

“I can’t say (reaching the state tournament) is something I would ever predict. But it’s been a really great ride. I’m just so happy for the kids. They’ve put a lot of hard work in. It’s really deserving for them.”

DeMell is also solid at the plate, leading the team in RBI (40) and hits (44).

Fowler points to two seniors — catcher Nick Christopher and rightfielder Connor Krebs — as catalysts for the Lancers’ success.

“They really helped guide the younger players and have set the tone for this year’s unit,” he said of the pair of three-year starters.

Overall, Gilmour has eight seniors.

Fowler touted Nick’s brother, Matt (middle IF), Garrett Olsen (3B) and Hollis, who also plays second, as bright spots of his lineup.

“The other guys in the lineup have played their roles well, too,” Fowler said. “That’s what’s special about this team. Everyone understands what their job is and makes sure to help one another to achieve those jobs on any given day.”

Sliva said if his guys focus on what they do well, they’ll be fine.

“We’ll just prepare like we normally do,” he said. “(Gilmour) looks good at all positions. They look really, really good.”

Sliva, too, wouldn’t tip his hand on who will take the mound for his team Saturday. Tyler Tonkovich and Kyle Storer pitched well for the Red Devils in the regional final and semifinal, respectively.

As far as St. C.’s batting order goes, Sliva expects it to remain intact, with Busby (SS), who knocked in the game-winner vs. Big Red, at the top.

“It’s solidified with him at the top,” he said. “Drake (LF )has moved down into the third hole. I think he’s comfortable. The bottom half is also solid.

“One day, the 1, 2, 4 batters might hit. The next day, the 3, 5 and 7 hitters.

“That’s the hope for Saturday, too. We have to hope someone gets one and someone comes up with the big hit.”

Busby (.387), Storer (.321), Jarvis (.326), Will Balgo (.308) and John Luke DeFilippo (.348) are all hitting over .300 for the Red Devils, with Busby leading the team with 45 hits. Jarvis has 10 extra-base hits, including eight doubles.

Sliva said this weekend is a result of talent and other intangibles intertwining.

“They all get along, they all believe and they all believe in what we say as coaches,” he said.

“There’s no fighting, they’re all happy and they’re all where they belong. They can’t wait to get there. They’re excited about what we’re doing.

“Of course, there has to be talent. You can have all the talent in the world, but if they don’t get along and they don’t believe in what you’re doing and your philosophy, you’re not going to win.

“You have to have some talent, which we do. We have a lot of talent. We have kids that believe in what we’re doing and come from good, strong families, don’t me forget about that. These are kids that, when they believe, they’ll do just fine.

“That usually leads to success.”

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