STRUTHERS - There was no one to blame for the Niles Red Dragons.
No bad call. No ugly inning. No finger pointing - unless it was directed toward Struthers.
The Wildcats simply played a great all-around game to upset top-seeded Niles, 6-3, in a Division II district semifinal Monday at Cene Park.
Struthers, a No. 6 seed with a 14-8 record, was ready from the outset, scoring three runs in the top of the first inning. While the Red Dragons (21-7) responded with three runs of their own in the bottom of the inning, those were the only times anyone from Niles crossed the plate the rest of the game. Wildcats starter Gary Muntean settled in after the first inning, and despite not recording a strikeout, he induced 15 fly outs (out of 21 total outs) and shut down a high-powered Niles offense.
Struthers coach Mike Donatelli said after facing the Red Dragons twice this season - splitting the season series - he devised a bit of a game plan for the lineup. That plan included a steady diet of offspeed pitches.
"From us learning about their hitters, we kind of wanted to pitch away from them and make them try and square balls up and not put them right down the middle of the plate," Donatelli said. "He (Muntean) did a great job of that all day - hitting his spots. In a big game like this, I thought he did a phenomenal job."
Muntean, who tossed all seven innings in heat that neared 90 degrees, worked his way out of a number of jams. The Red Dragons left 11 men on base - at least one runner in every inning. They left the bases loaded in the first and stranded men at first and second in both the third, fifth and sixth innings.
"We had our opportunities, and really, the game of baseball comes down to taking advantage of those opportunities," Niles coach Mike Guarnieri said. "When you get 'em, you've got to use 'em. They did today, and we didn't. That's the difference."
Struthers, which plays Cardinal Mooney in the district championship at 6 p.m. tonight at Cene Park, added a run in the third and two more in the fourth. Kolton Rudzik hit an RBI double in the third, and the Wildcats tacked on two more in the fourth. Dan Diloreto smacked a two-out single to the opposite field, and the ball skipped off the glove of the Niles right fielder, which allowed the runner to score from first. Muntean followed with another single to right, and a strong throw from right was mishandled by the catcher, and Struthers went up, 6-3.
A good approach at the plate by the Wildcats led to 13 total hits, a stat that took plenty of work to produce.
"We talked about using all fields against this team because they throw a lot of ... change-ups, curveballs and they like to mix it up," Donatelli said. "So we told them, if it's there, take it to the opposite field, and they did a good job with it.
"We struggled earlier in the year with the bats, and we kept harping on 'em and working and working and working, and finally, the last couple of weeks, they're squaring balls us and they're hitting it where we need them to."
It was a tough ending for a Niles team that put together two very impressive seasons. The Red Dragons won the All-American Conference, American Division title last season, going 18-9 and 91 in the AAC. This year they earned the second most wins in school history. Despite the loss, Guarnieri said seniors Ryan Ifft, Tyler Wiery, Jake Foster, Noah Arvin, Ian Hileman, J.C. Pierko, Brennan Baker and Grant Martin made a major imprint on the program.
"You can't ask for anymore than what they've given or sacrificed over the last four years," Guarnieri said. "It's been phenomenal. I love 'em. They're just a great group of guys who bought in from their freshmen year on."