MASSILLON - Having squared off in the Division III Massillon regional semifinal the past two years with both teams taking one, the rubber match between Ursuline and LaGrange Keystone looked to be a highly contested matchup.
The Irish's senior ace, Sam Donko, took the mound and snuffed out any chance of drama that normally comes with such a game on Thursday. He struck out 15 Keystone batters and allowed just one run in the Irish's 6-1 win at Massillon Washington High School.
Along with being the third time the two teams faced each other at Carl "Ducky" Schroeder Field, this also marked the third time Donko pitched against the Bobcats.
"I was excited," Donko said. "My off-speed was working, and everything just fell in place. I had a good two, three innings."
Donko's domination started right from the beginning, striking out the side in the first and second innings and eight of the first nine batters he faced. The first ball hit into play by the Bobcats (23-8) came off a Cameron Schumann fly out to Ursuline (23-2) right fielder Vinnie Boerio.
"In the bullpen, he just gets loose," freshman catcher Drew Potesta said. "When he comes out there, he's a whole different person. Today, he just had it."
Keystone's best chance to get anything off Donko occurred in the fourth, where the top of the order, seeing the Ursuline pitcher for the second time in the game, hit three singles and scored a run.
Threatening with runners on first and second and one out, things didn't look too great for Donko, but the senior picked up the second out by getting the Bobcats' Tyler Gullet, who hit 14 home runs and drove in 64 runs during the season, to leave early, forcing him into a pickle. Then, he got Kendle Stiner looking at strike three for the third out.
For such a potent offense, that was all the Bobcats could muster.
"I heard that one hitter had 14 bombs - that's ridiculous for high school," Donko said. "But that didn't really scare me. You got to pitch to them. What are you going to do - pitch around them all the time?"
He wasn't scared of them at all, and it showed in what he threw.
Donko attacked every batter early in the game with his 80-plus mph fastball, and Keystone just couldn't keep up with it. That worked in his favor once he started getting tired and needed to rely more on the curveball and off-speed pitches.
"Even the meat of their order, nobody really seemed to be getting around on his fastball, which made his breaking ball a little bit more effective," Ursuline coach Sean Durkin said. "The fastball was the key."
With Donko dealing, the Irish had a few innings to get the bats going and finally gave their pitcher all the help he needed in the top of the fourth.
After an error and two walks loaded the bases, pinch-hitter Matt Lacko stepped up to the plate and delivered a single up the middle, which scored Dion Felger and Tannor Berry and led to a four-run inning. The moment was big for the senior, who tore his meniscus earlier this season and kept him from taking his usual spot as catcher.
That didn't mean that Durkin wasn't going to find a use for the senior.
"Coach Durkin told me before the game that in a big situation, he was going to come to me," Lacko said. "I knew what I had to do up there, and I did it."
Ursuline moves on to face Orrville today for a spot in the state semifinals next Thursday at Huntington Park in Columbus.