The sectional tournament was a downer for the Cardinal Stritch Catholic baseball team.
The Cardinals lost to Toledo Area Athletic Conference rival Ottawa Hills 11-7 in eight innings in the Division IV sectional championship.
“We were down the whole game and scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to tie it up,” Stritch coach Craig Meinzer said. “Ottawa Hills scored four runs after having the bases loaded with no outs, and we committed two errors in the eighth.”
Meinzer said that while the loss was deflating, he was impressed by the way the Cardinals battled.
“We took some strides, just the competing aspect,” he said. “They’re starting to realize that now, instead of dropping their heads they realize they have to keep competing when something bad happens. We still have to find a way to get over the hump and believe in ourselves. The fact they didn’t quit shows we’ve grown up as a program.”
The Cards have done more than redeem themselves — they are champions for the first time in a decade.
The Cards, now 12-13 overall and 10-2 in the TAAC, beat Gibsonburg, 9-0, on Monday to win at least a share of TAAC championship. A lot of the non-league losses have been to Division I teams. This is the first baseball championship since 2003 and the first boys’ championship in any sport since football in 2006.
Ottawa Hills has two league games left, so if the Green Bears lose one, Stritch will be sole owners of the championship hardware.
“These are pretty crucial games for what we’ve gone through and how much the guys have bought into it,” Meinzer said. “We can salvage the season. A state championship is always the ultimate goal, but we still have the TAAC championship to play for. It would solidify our program if we could come out on top, with the competition there is in this conference.
“We have a lot of good young kids in the program. After this year we need to keep things rolling and hope TAAC championships keep coming on a consistent basis.”
Meinzer was honored by his colleagues as TAAC Coach of the Year. First team players are seniors Ryan Ballesteros and Robbie Bekier. Second team selections are seniors Cody Kuch and Conner Kelsey. Honorable Mention picks are seniors Kyle Smrekar and Eric Richardville and junior Jake Empie.
The Cardinals got off to a rough start this season but have bounced back with an opportunity to finish above .500. Stritch finished 10-12 and 7-5 in the TAAC last season.
“At the beginning of the year we were not playing very well and the chemistry was bad,” Meinzer said. “It’s nice seeing them come together and believe in themselves. The senior leadership stepped up, and the guys who have been doing bit parts have done a wonderful job filling in for us.”
Stritch’s top two pitchers have been senior right-handers Bekier and Kuch. Bekier is 3-1 with a 3.09 ERA in 34 innings with 32 strikeouts and nearly a four-to-one strikeout to walk ratio. He gave up seven earned runs in 6.1 innings in the tournament loss to Ottawa Hills, which totally downgraded his numbers.
“He missed eight games due to a spring break trip, but he’s had a really good year,” Meinzer said. “He’s hitting his spots this year. He’s learned how to pitch since last year and he has a little bit more confidence on the mound in tight situations. He’s hitting the ball well. He was batting .405 and he had a couple hits in the sectional final.”
Kuch is 3-2 with a 2.65 ERA in 31.2 innings, with 17 strikeouts and 15 walks.
“He stepped up last year and we relied on him heavily this year with Robbie being gone two weeks,” Meinzer said. “He pitched a lot at the beginning and did a nice job throwing for us. Cody really competes on the mound every time he’s out there.”
Junior pitcher Jake Empie is 1-6 with a 3.58 ERA, with losses to bigger schools Springfield, Maumee, Start and Fremont Ross. He has given up 15 earned runs in 29.1 innings, with 20 strikeouts.
“He comes in during some tough-luck situations in the sixth and seventh innings against D-I opponents,” Meinzer said. “His record doesn’t show what he can do on the mound. He’s going to be pretty good on the mound next year. He’s been pretty good this year, but he’s going to be very good next year.”
Pitcher Sean Killian fills out the top four with one win and no losses, a 2.53 ERA in 19.1 innings and 11 strikeouts.
The Cardinals, who have a .252 team batting average, are led by Bekier, who is batting .436 with 11 RBIs, Kuch is batting .351 with 10 RBIs.
Senior catcher Ryan Ballesteros is the No. 2 hitter with a .423 average, one home run and 21 RBIs. Ballesteros doubled and scored in the sectional final loss.
“He’s got a lot of pop in his bat,” Meinzer said. “He’s come through for us a lot and been our most consistent hitter. He’s caught every game but two, and to be able to carry that batting average has been a good thing for the team.”
Senior shortstop Conner Kelsey, who bats leadoff after batting in the ninth spot a year ago, is hitting .375 with a .525 on-base percentage.
“He’s a really good two-strike hitter,” Meinzer said. “He took that confidence he gained last year and took it into this year.”
Senior second baseman Kyle Smrekar, who bats either seventh or eighth, is hitting .319 with a .483 on-base percentage to go along with 13 RBIs and seven stolen bases.
“He’s come through with a lot of big hits for us and he’s made a lot of really good defensive plays,” Meinzer said. “He has created a lot of double plays for us defensively.”