Baseball hotbed Defiance capped off the best season in the high school’s history late Saturday night by closing with an 8-2 victory over Plain City Jonathan Alder in the Division II state championship game at Huntington Park in Columbus.
The top-ranked Bulldogs (31-1), who set a school record for wins in a season, had to wait for Sunday evening to really celebrate the second state baseball crown won by their school.
Coach Tom Held, his staff, and the players were given an escort around town by the Defiance police and fire departments. A reception followed.
“Outside of what we did on the field right after the game, we had no celebration [Saturday] night because we got on the bus and got home at 2:15 in the morning,” Held said. “We slept.
“[On Sunday night], we rode on the bed of a semi truck around town, and that was a great experience for the kids. People were coming out of their houses with their thumbs up and yelling congratulations. Horns were honking all over town. That was our celebration, and it was very worthwhile.”
In Saturday’s state final, 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior left-hander Weston Rivers (10-0 record, 0.31 ERA) struck out 15 Alder batters and walked none. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before Alder turned four hits into two runs.
In Friday’s 5-1 state semifinal win over Akron Hoban, 6-4, 205-pound senior right-hander Rob Zeigler (10-0, 0.45 ERA) struck out 14 and walked three while allowing seven hits in a complete-game victory.
Leading the offense throughout the season were Zeigler (.437 average, five home runs, 37 RBIs), who played first base when not pitching, junior right fielder Adam Schaffer (.390), junior shortstop-pitcher Austin Hancock (.385), junior third baseman Dom Gentile (.383), senior designated hitter Austin Yant (.315), and senior left fielder Dom Romero (.308).
Rounding out the Bulldogs’ regular lineup were senior catcher Joe Keween, junior second baseman Derek Turner, and junior center fielder Jacob Green. Rivers played first base when Zeigler pitched.
“It was a tremendous season for our program,” Held said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have some pretty good seasons, but never had been able to win the so-called big one.
“We had never been in the state championship game since I’ve been here, so that was uncharted territory for us.”
The lone loss for Defiance was a 9-8 setback to Central Catholic on May 2. The Bulldogs later defeated the Irish 1-0 in the district semifinals despite being no-hit by Central senior Jake Rudnicki.
“We won a school-record 31 games and a state championship, so it would be hard to say this wasn’t our best team ever,” Held said. “It was our best team, but not our most talented team.
“This year, our district was our best competition without a doubt. That’s a credit to northwest Ohio. We were fortunate to get past Central in the district. We got that break we needed, and that’s something we hadn’t gotten in the past in the tournament.”
One of the state’s most successful coaches during his 26 seasons at three northwest Ohio schools, Held said that guiding a state-title team did not serve as any kind of personal validation.
The owner of a 589-132 career record, including a superb 386-59 (.867) mark in his 15 seasons at Defiance, he has taken greater joy during the journey than Saturday’s destination.
“I just love baseball, and I love coaching,” Held said. “I look at it as a privilege to be able to work with kids. I don’t want to act nonchalant or cocky, but winning a state championship has never been a goal for me.
“It’s great for the program, but I just love to see the kids go on in their lives. My greatest reward is being invited to a former player’s wedding. When an invitation shows up in the mail, that makes my day. That’s what it’s all about.”
Held attributes much of the Defiance High School baseball success to the community’s emphasis on youth baseball, the fact that the city’s best athletes often stay with baseball throughout high school instead of giving it up to focus on football or basketball, and that many of the players work hard on developing their throwing skills with year-round drills.
A 1980 Edon High School graduate, Held played at Defiance College, was drafted by Detroit in 1983, and spent parts of four seasons in the Tigers’ minor-league system as a pitcher.
He spent three seasons at Elmwood (39-29 record, 1988-90) and eight more at Bryan (164-44, 1991-98, seven NWOAL titles). Since taking over for Greg Inselmann — who was 303-85 and won the 1992 Division I state championship during his 18 seasons at Defiance — Held’s Bulldogs have won 12 Western Buckeye League titles and posted an average season record of 26-4.
Since the mid 1980s, Defiance has had nine players selected in the Major League Baseball draft, including the last seven under Held’s watch. The most famous of those were pitchers Chad Billingsley (2003 grad), who plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jon Niese (2005), who plays for the New York Mets.
Two others — Tyler Burgoon (Seattle Mariners) and Justin Hancock (San Diego Padres) — are currently playing in the minor leagues.
Last Friday, 2010 Defiance grad Dace Kime, a junior pitcher at the University of Louisville, was selected in the third round of the MLB draft by the Cleveland Indians.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, 419-724-6461, or on Twitter@JungaBlade.