Clay may have earned tomorrow s trip to the Division I baseball regional by surviving a 10-inning, 4-2 victory over St. Francis de Sales in last Friday s district final at Skeldon Stadium.
But the roots of that victory were established against those same Knights exactly four weeks earlier on the Eagles home field.
That was the night Clay gained the big-game confidence which ultimately pulled it through the district final nail-biter.
Back on April 28, St. Francis scored six unearned runs in the fourth inning to take a 6-0 lead in City League play. But Clay responded an inning later with a seven-run rally and eventually held on for a 10-9 victory.
Mental toughness is a must in baseball, 10th-year Clay coach Karl Knierim said. This game will get you if you re not mentally tough, and these guys have certainly bought into that.
They re a tough-minded group, and they understand that there s a lot of [negative] things that happen in the game of baseball. There are things you can t control, and you can t wear it on your sleeve playing defense or when you go to bat.
When faced with an early 2-0 deficit in the district final, the Eagles kept their composure. They tied the game 2-2 in the fourth, escaped a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the bottom of the eighth, and ultimately prevailed.
That win earned Clay (19-6) a regional semifinal with Strongsville (22-6) at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Shelby.
It is the first regional appearance for the Eagles since back-to-back trips in Division II in 1996 and 97, and the first berth in Ohio big-school play since the 1984 team reached in Class AAA. Clay won the AAA state title in 1979, and also made the AAA regionals in 1976 when Knierim was the Eagles shortstop.
It s a great feeling, Knierim said. This is a target. There s a lot of good teams in this area that you have to get through first just to have the opportunity.
We were fortunate that we played some solid ball, had some timely hitting, some good pitching and that our defense was good.
Helping lead Clay this season have been four senior starters shortstop Derek Spencer, catcher Brent Graham, pitcher-infielder Aaron Roberts and designated hitter Ben Henning.
Spencer, who will play at Bowling Green State University on scholarship, is the infield general as well as Clay s most productive hitter. He is hitting .394 (26 for 66) with three home runs, 28 runs scored and 25 RBIs.
The [first] St. Francis game was amazing, Spencer said. Coming back with that seven-run inning, that was definitely the turning point in our season. That s when we gained all the momentum we needed.
We had confidence [in the district final]. We never lost hope for a second, and we were able to pull through.
Graham, a defensive stalwart with a knack for aggressive throwing, is the glue that holds the Eagles talented but mostly underclassman pitching corps together. He also leads the team in hitting at .434 (33 for 76) out of the leadoff spot, and has scored 25 runs and driven in 17.
It s been our goal all year to make it to regionals, said Graham, who also quarterbacked the football team for two years and started three seasons at point guard in basketball. I think it s our never-say-die attitude that got us there. We just never stop playing.
We knew we d done it before [rallying against St. Francis], so everybody just believed we could do it again. We had never beaten St. Francis since we entered the City League. Once we beat them, we had the confidence we could beat anyone.
Graham will play at Owens Community College.
Roberts, who also plays third base, is 6-1 pitching with 48 strikeouts and a 1.77 ERA over 392/3 innings.
When all the aspects of our game come together, Roberts said, we re a very good team, and we can compete with anybody.
Henning is batting .370 (17 for 46) with 13 RBIs.
They re all very good players and very good kids, Knierim said of his seniors. They lead more by example through their work ethic and their willingness to do whatever they need to do to improve.
Four other Eagles are above .300 batting sophomore outfielders Michael Romano (.406) and Ross Knierim (Karl s son, .302), junior third baseman/pitcher Casey Winckowski (.356) and junior pitcher-outfielder A.J. Achter (.306).
Its deep pitching staff has moved Clay along to the regional.
Junior lefty Patrick Martin, also one of the area s best defensive center fielders, is 5-1 pitching with 44 strikeouts and an 0.80 ERA in 44 innings. Achter is 5-2 with 52 strikeouts and a 2.38 ERA in 47 innings.
Rounding out the squad are seniors Cory Trout (first base), Mike Garcia (second base), Jason Klatt (outfield) and junior backup outfielders Andy Knopp and Aaron Kovacs.65.20193 -18.8894