Clay has waited almost a full year to get a second crack at a regional baseball semifinal and, thanks to last Saturday's 5-3 Division I district final win over City League foe St. John's Jesuit, the Eagles will get that chance.
Clay, 25-2 after last night's 17-4 win at Northwood, will take on sixth-ranked Cleveland St. Ignatius (20-6) in a semifinal tomorrow at 2 p.m. at Shelby High School.
St. Ignatius is no stranger to deep tournament runs in recent years. The Wildcats have made six trips to the state final four since 1993, winning a D-I title in 2002 after losing in the state final to Start in 2000.
Clay's prior trip to a regional semi last year at Shelby was decidedly brief, as the Eagles fell 3-1 to eventual state champion Strongsville.
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Clay batters managed only four hits and eight total baserunners in the game while Strongsville sophomore left-hander Matt Kappler needed only 67 pitches in his complete-game win.
Kappler, who got through the first five innings on just 36 pitches, amazingly recorded no strikeouts and induced 20 infield outs.
Veteran Clay coach Karl Knierim is counting on his hitters being more patient this time around.
"We just didn't give ourselves many opportunities," Knierim said. "I think our motors were running too fast."
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Knierim's confidence in this area comes from having five returning starters from that team, including a senior trio who lead the team on the mound and in the field.
A.J. Achter, the Eagles' hard-throwing 6-foot-5 ace, will likely get the start. Achter is 7-0 with a save and an 0.75 earned run average through 462/3 innings.
"You win with pitching and defense," Achter said, "and the hitters have come along this year on top of that. That's made it a lot easier on us.
"Last year when we went to regionals it seemed like we were just happy to be there. We weren't as enthusiastic or focused as we should have been for a regional game. I think this year it'll be different."
The Michigan State University-bound right-hander has struck out 88 batters and walked 24, allowing just 13 hits to the 182 batters he's faced. Achter is also among Clay's batting leaders, hitting .417 (30-for-72) with 25 RBIs from the No. 3 spot.
Should Achter slip, the Eagles have lefty Patrick Martin, the No. 2 starter, who is 4-2 with a 1.78 ERA and 57 strikeouts and 17 walks in 351/3 innings.
The Bowling Green State University-bound Martin, also the No. 2 hitter in the order as the regular center fielder, leads Clay with a .440 batting average with two home runs and 24 RBIs.
"We didn't try to base this year on what we did last year," Martin said of the team's progress. "We wanted to start from scratch. But having the experience of getting that far has really helped. We knew what we needed to do to get back there.
"We've definitely replayed that game [Strongsville] over and over. We were a little anxious. I think we'll be a little more patient this year and play our game."
Completing Clay's senior trio of returnees is third baseman-picther Casey Winckowski, who is hitting .338 with four homers and 23 RBIs in the cleanup spot. Winckowski, also a hard-throwing right-hander and the Eagles' No. 3 starter, is 6-0 with a 1.78 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 391/3 innings.
"We made [returning to the regional] a big issue this year," Winckowski said. "We knew we had something special here and that we could do something with it.
"With us three playing together so long, we knew what it took to get this far, and we knew we had the pitching to do it. This team right now is like one big bond."
Two juniors also started on last year's regional team. Current shortstop Ross Knierim, Karl's son, was an outfielder in 2006, and Mike Romano is back in the outfield. Knierim, the leadoff hitter, is batting .402 with 18 RBIs, and Romano is hitting .377 with 13 RBIs.
"It was basically a matter of just filling in the blank spots," Ross Knierim said of Clay's graduation void, "and the guys coming back from last year leading the team. It helped having that [regional] experience from last year.
"We have a good feeling about this year. We're going to try to do better and go farther."
Rounding out the regular lineup are four of the team's 10 seniors - second baseman Aaron Kovacs (.415, 19 RBIs), right fielder Andy Knopp (.311, 11 RBIs), catcher Rex Groll (.339, 17 RBIs) and first baseman Alex Timofeev. Kovacs, the No. 4 pitcher, is 5-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
Contributing off the bench have been senior infielders Mike Sheehan, Nick Guerrero and Randy Trout, and junior pitcher/infielder Adam O'Shea.
"These guys have taken nothing for granted this year," coach Knierim said. "They know it's tough just getting out of this district, because there's a lot of good teams in this area.
"The biggest thing about this team is that they come to play every day and they're always ready to go."
Clay's pitching, which has proven to be the best in northwest Ohio, has been complemented by solid plate production. The Eagles are batting .366 as a team and had outscored foes 225-45 through 26 games.
Division I district runner-up St. John's Jesuit (21-6, 10-1) will be the top seed for Monday's City League baseball playoff semifinals at Fifth Third Field.
The Titans, who lost 5-3 to Clay in Saturday's district final, will face Central Catholic in the first semifinal at noon. Central (14-14, 8-3) defeated Bowsher 3-2 in eight innings last night to earn the No. 4 seed.
The 2:30 p.m. semifinal pits third-seeded Clay (25-2, 9-2) against No. 2 Whitmer (16-10, 9-2). The championship game is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Fifth Third Field, following the league's 4 p.m. junior varsity final.
Wauseon softball coach Lynelle Nofziger is away from her teaching position on maternity leave after the birth of son Cohen seven weeks ago.
But Cohen's arrival couldn't pull her away from leading her Indians to their third regional appearance.
Wauseon, which lost regional finals in 1997 and 2001, will meet LaGrange Keystone (20-6) in a Division II regional semifinal today at 5 p.m. at Bucyrus High School. The Tribe's 2001 regional loss came against Keystone.
This year's Indians are led by the 1-2 pitching punch of senior Meagan Sauder (10-4) and freshman Chloe Stiriz (10-3). They alternated starts most of the season, but in tourney play Sauder has started and Stiriz has closed games.
Wauseon has been led at the plate by freshman left fielder Megan Dennis (.518 batting average), senior second baseman Shelly Cain (.397) and sophomore third baseman Chelsie Woten (.363).
Monday's 2-0 non-league win over D-I regional qualifier Whitmer lifted the Indians to 20-7 overall. They finished in third place in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League with a 6-2 mark.