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As they approach their Division I district baseball semifinal today against Whitmer, the St. Francis de Sales Knights have been the area’s best team to this point in the season.
Now they will find out if the momentum of a 23-game winning streak will lead to any significant championship hardware.
The fourth-ranked Knights take a 25-1 overall record into today’s 4:30 p.m. contest at Mercy Field. A win would send them to the district title game Saturday against the winner of today’s 2:30 semifinal between Clay (12-12) and St. John’s Jesuit (18-8).
Led by their four seniors — Max Lyon, twin brothers Eric and Matt Zmuda, and Michael Wagner — the Knights are batting .380 as a team, and carry a team ERA of 1.74. They have outscored their opponents 220-65, an average of 8.5 to 2.5 per game.
St. Francis earned the top seed for the Three Rivers Athletic Conference playoffs with a 10-0 mark. The Knights defeated visiting Lima Senior 19-0 in the TRAC quarterfinals, and have a semifinal against St. John’s at 10 a.m. Monday at Mercy Field.
The other TRAC semifinal pits Central Catholic (14-12) against Fremont Ross (14-12) at 12:30 p.m., and the championship game is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mercy Field.
“You never think you’re going to be 25-1 in high school baseball, even when you think you’re good,” said Tim Gerken, who is in his seventh season as head coach after 21 years as a Knights assistant. “We knew we’d be good because we were 19-9 and beat everybody in the district last year. We just didn’t win anything. We still haven’t won anything this year but 25 games.
“That’s why you play. You want to win a championship. When you’re 25-1, a lot of people will tell you how good you are. But anybody can get you in this sport, so we’re going to try to go out and get them. We’ll see how it plays out. We’ve had some good teams here, but this is just a special group of kids.”
The best single-season record for St. Francis was a 30-2 finish in 1985.
With all of these possibilities awaiting the Knights over the next six days, they have little time to reflect on what they have already accomplished.
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Picked in a preseason coaches poll to place fifth in the TRAC, St. Francis has not lost since its third game of the season, the second game of a doubleheader during a season-opening trip to Florida.
That lone defeat (7-1) came against McGill (Ala.) Toolen, and the Knights have survived six one-run games along the way. The toughest of those was a 2-1 home win in TRAC play in 13 innings against Clay.
Scoreless through 12 innings, Clay scored a run in the top of the 13th only to watch St. Francis rally for two in the bottom half.
Games like that have defined the senior-dominated Knights’ season. With 12 seniors, St. Francis has been the epitome of a balanced team all season — both at the plate and on the mound.
“They’re not only good baseball players, but they’re a great group of kids,” Gerken said. “Fortunately, this year [solid play] has occurred as a unit, and it has truly been a team effort. When your leadoff hitter is your leader in RBIs, someone’s getting on at the bottom of the order.”
Lyon, a pitcher/outfielder, bats fifth in the order. He is hitting .446 (33-for-74) with 21 RBIs and 25 runs scored. On the mound he is 5-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 26 strikeouts in a team-high 41 1/3 innings.
“It’s basically just our team chemistry,” Lyon said. “We’re all very close, and we’re a senior-laden team. We enjoy playing together every day. It’s not a grind. We go out and have fun with it.
“Individually, we are confident athletes. We go up to the plate like we’re going to get a hit every time, and when we’re on the mound pitching we give it all we have. We have a little bit of everything on this team, and it all just mixes well.”
Shortstop and leadoff hitter Eric Zmuda is batting a team-high .449 (40-for-89) with a team-best 29 RBIs, and 28 runs scored.
“We take it one game at a time and try to keep it as simple as possible,” Eric Zmuda said. “We try not to look too far ahead. We’ve been getting contributions from 1 through 9. There’s not one go-to guy.”
Matt Zmuda, who will play at Denison University along with Eric next year, bats third, plays first base and pitches. He is hitting .361 with two homers and 23 RBIs. On the mound, he is 2-0 with a 2.94 ERA.
Wagner, a catcher and occasional closer, bats eighth in the lineup. He is hitting .377 with 13 RBIs, and has five saves and a 0.00 ERA.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Wagner said. “We all have each other’s back. If somebody gets in trouble [pitching], there’s always someone there to step up for them to finish an inning, or finish a game.
“I’m comfortable catching all those guys. I know how they throw, and they’re comfortable throwing to me.”
Other seniors in the regular lineup include outfielder and No. 2 batter Cody Lewis (.405, 17 RBIs), outfielder and No. 9 batter Joey White (.412, 20 RBIs), and pitcher/DH/infielder and cleanup hitter Miccoy Drzewiecki (.325, two homers, 22 RBIs; 4-0 with 1.84 ERA pitching).
The seven starting seniors are joined in the lineup by two sophomores — second baseman and No. 6 batter Andy Okuley (.298), and third baseman and No. 7 batter Nick Lankard (.311, 14 RBIs).
With no clear-cut ace, the Knights have pitched by committee. They have had only two pitchers throw a complete game all season, and frequently use three or four pitchers in a game.
“We just basically look at the lineup we’re facing, try to dissect it a little bit, and then just go with who we think is effective at the moment,” Gerken said of the pitching scheme. “We’ve definitely got a deep staff, and we’re not afraid to use it.”
Seniors Josh Williams (4-0, 1.48 ERA), Kevin Greenoe (3-1, 2.16), and Kenzie Mayo (3-0, 0.49 ERA) are in the regular mix along with Lyon, Drzewiecki and Matt Zmuda, with Wagner called on to close when needed.
“We’ve had a lot of great kids over the years but I don’t think we’ve ever had a group like this,” Gerken said. “These guys are best friends and they have a blast every time they’re together.”
“Regardless of what happens from here on out, this has been the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Eric Zmuda said. “We’re not settling for what we’ve already done."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.