When Northwood looked to move a step forward with its baseball program this year, little did the Rangers and third-year head coach Dave Russell know that they would actually take a big enough leap to end a 21-year drought in the process.
That is precisely what happened on May 28, when the Rangers beat visiting Toledo Christian 8-6 in their season finale in a showdown for the Toledo Area Athletic Conference championship.
That victory enabled the underclassman-dominated Rangers to close the season at 16-9 overall and 11-1 in TAAC play for an outright conference title.
It was the first TAAC baseball crown for Northwood and the first baseball title of any kind for the Rangers since they shared the Suburban Lakes League championship with Eastwood and Genoa in 1989.
"The biggest key was everybody knowing their roles," Russell said. "We wanted them to trust the [coaching staff], and everybody did that."
Russell - along with assistant coaches Tom Gercak, Rob Rohrs, and John Segura, Sr. - have perhaps only tapped into the Rangers' potential.
"We're returning eight starters next year," Russell said, "and a bunch of guys got a lot of playing time. It's going to be interesting here the next couple years."
Junior left-hander Cameron Juhasz - the Rangers' pitching ace at 6-3 with a 3.44 earned run average and 73 strikeouts in 59 innings this season - worked 61/3 innings in the finale to earn the clinching victory. Junior Marc Canaday got the final two outs in relief to stop a two-run rally by Toledo Christian (20-8, 10-2 TAAC), which ended as TAAC runner-up.
The second-place Eagles, who were unbeaten in TAAC play in 2009 when they reached the Division IV regional finals, were preseason favorites to repeat as conference champions this year. Perennial TAAC power Ottawa Hills, which ultimately beat TC in the D-IV district final and advanced to the state semifinals in Columbus, ended up third in the conference.
Speaking of preseason picks, Northwood was tabbed for fourth by TAAC coaches, a prediction that inspired the young Rangers, who had just two senior starters (three overall) this year.
Those seniors were catcher Andy Bloomfield and third baseman/designated hitter Drew Minarcin. The other senior was backup Dylan Romstadt, a part-time DH who coach Russell credited as the team's dugout leader.
Northwood's other key TAAC contests were an earlier 2-1 win at Toledo Christian and a 7-6, 13-inning victory at Ottawa Hills. The Rangers won 11 straight conference games after opening with a 10-1 loss to visiting Ottawa Hills.
In D-IV tournament play, Northwood beat North Baltimore 6-1 before losing 3-1 at Ottawa Hills in a sectional final.
Outside of the three seniors, Northwood was an otherwise all junior-freshman squad, with eight juniors on the varsity roster along with four freshmen.
Regulars included juniors Juhasz (P-1B), Jake Pressley (LF-P), Tyler Johnson (3B-DH), John Romstadt (CF) and Ryan Langenderfer (2B), with Ben Wilson (utility) and Canaday (P-OF) filling in gaps in the field and on the mound as the No. 2 pitcher, respectively.
Junior Erik Russell, who spent much of the season rehabbing a knee injury from football, saw spot duty at second base.
The junior contingent, who were part of the Rangers' 13-12 (6-6 TAAC) finish in 2009 as sophomores, meshed well with the rest of the team's promising freshmen; starters Nick Russell (SS-P) and Justin Rohrs (3B), and John Segura and Evan Perkins - who split time in right field.
Nick Russell led the team in hitting (.421), home runs (2), and runs scored (29). Pressley hit .369 with team highs of 11 doubles and 24 RBIs. Wilson hit .339, Rohrs .329, Segura .326, and Johnson .320. Canaday was 4-2 on the mound with a 4.35 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 47 innings.
A fifth freshman, Anthony Rorigi, was a regular on the junior varsity, but did pitch 19 varsity innings, posting a 3-1 record and 2.21 ERA with 26 strikeouts.
"We worked really hard in the off-season," coach Russell said. "We knew it was going to come down to beating an Ottawa Hills and beating a Toledo Christian - once or twice during the year - to get some respect. Those days came and went and we did it."
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