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The first at-bat of Thursday's Division I district semifinal proved foreboding.
Walsh Jesuit leadoff hitter Brendan Regan popped the second pitch he saw high in the air, but Kent Roosevelt couldn't make the routine catch. So Regan took the third pitch he saw, an outside curve, to the right-center gap. He pulled up at third base, before a Roosevelt throwing error allowed Regan to race home.
That combination of Rough Riders miscues and Warriors hitting delivered runs throughout the sunlit afternoon, as No. 4 Walsh Jesuit downed No. 1 Roosevelt, 15-5, at Struthers' Bob Cene Park.
The Warriors (17-8) advanced to this afternoon's district championship game against No. 3 Boardman behind a 17-hit effort, beautifully taking fastballs to the opposite field.
"We had a very good approach," Walsh Jesuit coach Chris Kaczmar said. "We had a good plan at the plate, one through nine."
The Rough Riders (16-12) made matters worse with six errors -- along with other balls that could have been caught.
"Moving forward, we want to be them," Roosevelt coach Mike Haney said. "Knowing that we don't have guys that throw the ball by guys, we're going to have to start defending better."
Roosevelt's first appearance in the district tournament in many years went downhill quickly.
Walsh Jesuit pounced for seven runs in the first inning, starting with Regan's exhilarating sprint around the bases. Matt Lobeck followed with a full-count walk, Jace Burke hit a soft liner to centerfield and Easton Kindall slashed a line drive to left to put the Warriors up by two. Alex Weitman landed a gorgeous safety squeeze bunt down the first-base line to go up three runs -- but the Rough Riders were suddenly an out away from escaping serious trouble.
That escape never happened -- the dangerous Warriors banged four hits in a row, the first three on either a first pitch or a second pitch. Kevin Jarvis' RBI bloop single arguably could have been caught. Nathan Stahl's chopper was similarly close, just evading a Roosevelt diving infielder. Nolan Quinn's single was the same, mere inches from being snagged while putting Walsh Jesuit up five.
"When good hitters miss, they flare a ball somewhere," Haney said. "They make you make a play still. When bad hitters do that, it's in the catcher's mitt."
Regan, in his second at-bat of the first inning, capped the outburst with a deep fly to left to put Walsh Jesuit up seven.
"(Starting pitcher) Dean Gray has been invaluable to this program over the last four years," Haney said. "He's a great kid, he's done great things for us athletically, even off the field. Unfortunately for him, he came in today and didn't have his best stuff, his velocity was down a bit, and against them, you got to be good."
Regan, the Warriors' leadoff hitter, ended the day with four hits in four at-bats, including a double and a triple in the opening frame.
"Brendan had a remarkable day," Kaczmar said. "He's just an exceptional player, a great athlete and he came up big in our biggest game of the year.
Roosevelt senior reliever Phil Kaderle impressed out of the bullpen, coming in to get the Rough Riders out of the first and lasting into the fifth. He struck out five hitters, mystifying Walsh Jesuit with his submarine motion and sweeping curveball.
"We've seen that Phil all year, but it has been in one-inning stints," Haney said of the senior who has served as the Rough Riders' closer for much of the year. "He was up to it today. Phil's a gamer. I love him. He brings a hockey mentality."
Down 11-0, the Rough Riders never stopped fighting.
Riley Day, who smashed a first-inning single up the middle, blasted a 1-0 pitch in the bottom of the third to the right-field gap to draw the Rough Riders within 11-1. Kaderle found the same gap in the fourth for a triple, though he was stranded on third. Finally, in the fifth, Roosevelt batted around for a four-run inning.
"They've been resilient all year," Haney said. "We've been beat up a few times, it has to do with our depth, but we've always bounced back."
As the game went on, the Rough Riders' contact got better and better. Never was that more true than in the fifth, when Hayden Kegg led off with a liner up the middle and Zac Common followed with a similarly smoked baseball -- that the Warriors second baseman made a leaping snare on. With two outs and the bases loaded, Gray chopped a two-strike pitch between third and short to pull the Rough Riders within 15-4. Spencer Townend drew a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch to put the Rough Riders on the verge of extending the ballgame into the sixth inning, but Burke shut the door with his 10th strikeout.
A little wild late, Burke was excellent early, throwing his curveball for strikes no matter the count. He got five of his first six outs via the strikeout, blasting heat by Roosevelt's leadoff batter, then getting the next hitter to chase a nasty ankle-high slider, before finishing the frame with a similarly deadly slider.
Burke was equally impeccable in the second, getting the leadoff Roosevelt hitter on a gorgeous curve that crossed over the inner black. He then spotted a 2-2 fastball on the outer black for his fifth strikeout.
Burke's curve was a deadly weapon throughout the afternoon. He used a big hook for his seventh strikeout, to start the fourth, then unleashed an even bigger one with runners on first and third and two outs. The curveball to Townend started at his head and somehow broke over the inner black for Burke's eighth strikeout.
"He's given us some outstanding performances this entire year as our ace," Kaczmar said. "I'm just really happy for him."
Burke yielded five runs on five hits, working his way out of a fifth inning in which he plunked three batters and walked another hitter.
Moving forward, Haney said he wants to create the most challenging schedule possible for his Rough Riders.
Kaczmar, meanwhile, was quick to praise the Rough Riders.
"We've got a lot of respect for Kent Roosevelt," Kaczmar said. "Coach Haney just does a tremendous job with that team. They had a tremendous season."