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The result Thursday wasn't what the Rough Riders wanted.
The stage? Well, that was just fine. Roosevelt enjoyed that.
For the first time since 1990, the Rough Riders found themselves in the district tournament Thursday.
"It's awesome," senior hurler Dean Gray said. "It's the first time we've won a sectional championship in 30 years maybe, so it's really nice to see that the hard work has paid off."
Sure, the 15-5 loss to Walsh Jesuit wasn't what Roosevelt was looking for, but coach Mike Haney was able to look his team square in the face Thursday and tell them two things. First, he was proud of them, delighted as can be with a team that fought its way back from every conceivable obstacle in 2017. Second, he told his team, look over at the Warriors. Watch how well they field the ball. Watch how beautifully they hit the ball to the opposite field. Walsh Jesuit, he said, that's what I want us to be. And with such a young team standing in front of him, truly anything is possible.
Roosevelt was playing on the right field Thursday. The Rough Riders had reached the optimal venue. Next time, maybe they will be playing for a district title the next afternoon.
Just getting this far, earning the top seed in the Division I Struthers District among other things, took a lot of work, especially after starting 1-6. That pursuit of perfection is grueling -- no matter how laid-back the old-school country blaring over Roosevelt's loudspeaker on a sunny May day. The golden heat, the soft strains of music were interrupted only by the ping of aluminum bats and the equally frequent sound of Haney's voice.
"If you keep taking that long swing, I can't help you," Haney said to one kid.
To another, "For two years, I've been telling you to get those hands back."
When one of the kids responded by remedying his swing and hitting a grounder to the right side, Haney squealed with delight, "Yes, I'll take it."
"Haney is very passionate about the game," Gray said. "He loves the game more than anybody can imagine, so he wants to get everybody that plays for this program to their best potential, and whatever he can make them perfect at and can be done, he's going to try to help them do."
Haney and his players talk a lot about Creating A Culture (CAC), a system he developed more than a decade ago. It's the perfect small-ball formula. Roosevelt isn't going to hit anybody out of the park, Haney explained, or throw the hardest heat in the Suburban League. Instead, he expects his Rough Riders to scrap, to take pride in every time their toe taps first base.
At Wednesday's practice, that influence was clear. The kids screamed "CAC" with delight as players absorbed hit-by-pitches.
"Our whole thing is do your job," senior first baseman and reliever Phil Kaderle said. "We don't care if one guy hits a shot and gets a homer. That's only one run, but if we have two guys on and hit it to the right side and do our job, that can be two runs over one."
That's not the sexiest brand of baseball. As Haney joked, chicks like homers. Heck, everybody likes 400-foot blasts, but that's not Roosevelt's game, even if it took the Rough Riders a while to realize that.
"It was 'me baseball' (at first) trying to hit the bombs and see if that will work and then we finally got into all the young guys and even some of the old guys that you have to do your job and it's worked a lot better," Kaderle said.
When Roosevelt dropped to 1-6 early in the season, including a pair of blowout losses to Aurora, patience and love of the game held the Rough Riders together. Kaderle recalled summoning a lesson he had learned playing hockey in the winter: "It doesn't really matter about the record, the wins and losses, it's more about the memories."
"I just took that and brought that into this team," Kaderle said.
That kind of patience would prove pivotal given the Rough Riders' youth, with three freshmen playing every day and several more freshmen and sophomores in the team's regular rotation. Like any young team, Roosevelt had its share of rough games in 2017, but they never stopped cheering, according to sophomore catcher Nathan Ritchey.
"We love the game and there's no place we'd rather be, even when we're losing," Ritchey said. "We lost (big) to Hudson, and I was still happy walking out to the bus, because I knew there's no way I'd rather spend my night than sitting with those guys. That's really what drives us to come back after those losses."
Throughout the season, the Rough Riders have perennially lingered back to the diamond, not out of obligation, but out of love. After practices, three or four underclassmen will frequently hang around the field, or head over to the adjacent softball field to toss the ball around.
When practice is over, when the Rough Riders are facing a steep deficit, they still make the game seem enjoyable. Thursday afternoon, Roosevelt trailed Walsh Jesuit 7-0 after one inning and 11-0 in the middle of the fourth. It didn't matter. The dugout stayed vocal.
"Good eye, Zac Common," a few teammates chirped after their leadoff hitter took a few low fastballs in the third. "Here we go, Spencer Townend," yelled a teammate after he fought off a two-strike pitch in the fifth.
"That's been my favorite part about this team is stuff rolls off their back a little bit," Haney said. "They don't dwell on bad stuff and they also don't dwell on good stuff."
11-0 proved a little too much to climb back from Thursday, but that spirit led the Rough Riders back from 1-6. Teammates could have turned on each other. Instead, the senior class remained supportive of a plethora of freshmen and sophomores that flooded the Roosevelt varsity this season. The Rough Riders didn't plan on any such youth movement, Haney said. It wasn't about putting as many freshmen and sophomores on the field as possible so they would be ready to win championships by 2019. It just happened by accident. As Haney said, his young players had to earn their spots -- and they did.
Many not only had to adapt to varsity baseball -- but to new positions. Townend, a career infielder, was moved to the outfield to help in an area where the Rough Riders were relatively thin. Matt Dile, always a first baseman, was trotted out at second, and passing that test, even gave the hot corner a try. Ritchey excelled behind the plate, allowing the pitching staff to feel comfortable bouncing the ball to the plate.
"The one thing is you've got to realize they are 14, so they don't comprehend things as quickly as we do, just because we've been here for four years," Gray said. "You might need to tell them (something) a few times, help them out here and there, just understand that they haven't played at this kind of level before, then it turns out to be easy. They're great kids, real nice, they communicate well back to you once you show them the leadership."
Even some of the older guys gave new positions a shot. Take Kaderle, the team's longtime first baseman who hadn't pitched much at the varsity level due to arm troubles. He told the coaching staff at the start of the 2017 season that he could pitch for the Rough Riders. They didn't believe him, so he went out and showed off his brand-new submarine motion. He ended his senior season with four saves. In the district semifinal game, he lodged five strikeouts, flashing a deadly curveball along with a good, hard fastball.
With so many new players in new spots, miscues were bound to happen, and indeed, that was partially to explain for Roosevelt's 1-6 start. But somehow, the group stayed close.
"I'm honestly surprised that there isn't more conflict," Ritchey said. "The seniors, they've been wonderful. They've been helpful. It's part of that love of the game. They know what's best for the team, because they know it's a team effort."
For the older guys, Thursday meant even more. They had never participated in a district tournament game prior to Thursday at Bob Cene Park.
Before Roosevelt even threw the first pitch Thursday, it felt different. Whereas sectional games are simply hosted by the better-seeded team, district games are played at some of Northeast Ohio's nicest stadiums. And so it was that on Thursday Roosevelt took the field amidst the smell of lilacs and fried food, drifting lazily from the family-friendly area behind the backstop at Bob Cene Park. Suddenly, there was a press box, luxury-style seating and finely-manicured grass that stretched as far as the eye could see.
"I'm going to go in happy," Gray said. "It's (my) first time being able to play in front of a major crowd at a big stadium and I've been here for four years now."