The Clay High School baseball team celebrates their Division I district trophy after beating Southview 5-2 at Mercy Field on Saturday. The Eagles have gone 10-5 since starting the season 2-9.
Clay has had a rocky ride at times during this high school baseball season, losing its first six games and were 2-9 at one point.
But the Eagles have caught stride at the right time and, after topping Southview 5-2 in Saturday's Division I district championship game at Mercy Field, they make no apologies for taking a 12-14 record to Thursday's regional semifinals.
PHOTOS: Clay vs. Sylvania
"The kids have stuck with it and they continue to believe," Clay coach Garry Isbell said. "Yes, we've had a lot of road bumps. But, we've also played a tough schedule with no gimme games. Every win has been a quality win, and I told them that was going to pay off come tournament time. It did today."
Clay, which will face Ashland (22-4) at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Bowling Green State University's Stellar Field. The Eagles are back to regional play for the first time since making back-to-back trips in 2006-07.
One example of Clay's in-season turnaround is senior left-handed pitcher Ross Achter, who tightroped 5⅓ innings against the 15-13 Cougars Saturday to earn the win and even his season record at 4-4.
Although his mound situation appeared a bit dicey early on, Achter kept his poise and avoided major trouble.
"I didn't really have all my stuff today, and I really needed to focus on throwing strikes and letting my fielders make plays behind me," Achter said.
Southview took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning with two were out and the bases empty. Tyler Stambaugh singled to center, Ian Segall singled to right, and Achter walked Jordan Grunberg and Chris Estrel to push the run across.
Clay answered in the third when Tyler Brown led off with a double to left-center, and J.J. Miller followed with an RBI triple to the gap in left-center. Bryce Castilleja singled on the next pitch, and the Eagles owned a 2-1 lead.
Clay added a run in the fifth on a two-out delayed double-steal play which became successful when Cougar catcher Daniel Barnes' throw to second was off the mark, allowing Miller to score from third while Lucas Robson was eventually tagged out in a rundown.
Achter, who avoided serious trouble when he left the bases loaded in the first two innings and allowed just one run to score, retired Southview 1-2-3 in the third and fourth innings before some hurdles in the fifth.
Grunberg and Estrel opened that inning with singles to put runners at first and third. Achter got Klepzig on a short fly to center not deep enough to plate Grunberg, and induced Parker Wall into an inning-ending 1-6-3 double play.
Southview drew within a run while chasing Achter in the sixth inning.
Barnes singled to lead off, R.J. Fisher walked, and Jon Barker advanced them with a bunt. After Tyler Stambaugh's single to center scored Barnes, Clay right fielder Brett Jordan swapped positions with Achter, and retired Segall and Grunberg on successive groundouts to Castilleja at third to hold the 3-2 lead.
"We had plenty of opportunities but we just didn't get the big hit at the right time, and we didn't make plays when we needed to make plays," Southview coach Ed Mouch said. "But our guys battled all the way through, so we've got no fault with their effort at all."
Clay added two insurance runs for Jordan in the top of the seventh.
"[Shortstop] Kaleb Kuzma and [second baseman] J.J. Miller have turned three or four key double plays in this state tournament, and that's a great job by our middle infielders," Isbell said. "Tyler Brown loves this place, and he played well again here today. He's one of our hard-nosed seniors, and I'm real proud of him."