Records don’t matter in Ursuline semifinal

Just a few weeks ago, Ursuline and Gilmour Academy were average teams with below-average records.

The Irish were 7-10 entering the postseason, and despite being the reigning three-time district champion, they were struggling at the plate and received a fourth seed. Gilmour was even worse. The Lancers were 6-10 going into the playoffs, stricken mainly by inconsistent pitching.

Times have changed – and quickly.

The two teams head into the Division III Massillon regional semifinal game hotter than they’ve been all year. So, something’s got to give when they clash at 2 p.m. Thursday at Massillon High School.

“We played great in the district – those are probably two of the better games we’ve played all year,” said Ursuline coach Sean Durkin, whose Irish dominated Springfield (7-1) and South Range (11-2). “The nice thing is we’ve been there (to the regional), so we have a little bit of confidence going in there.”

They should. This is the Irish’s fourth straight regional appearance, and they’re coming off a state semifinal berth last year. Similar to 2013, Ursuline (10-10) is led by starting pitching. The Irish held two of the most powerful hitting teams in the district to a combined three runs.

Thursday’s starter, senior Dion Felger, owns a 4-2 record and a 1.48 ERA on the season.

“We’ve thrown well all year,” Durkin said. “We didn’t get blown out one time. We played a really good schedule, and our pitchers and our defense really kind of kept us in games.”

The schedule and a few hitting slumps led to Ursuline’s sub-par record, but the Irish are playing much better baseball these days. Durkin said the pitching and defense have continued to improve, and the hitting has finally come around.

“As we got closer to the tournament, they got a little more locked in and I think they realized the situation called for complete concentration,” Durkin said. “The last two weeks, we’ve really turned it on, so if we continue to swing it, we’re going to have a legitimate chance this week.”

Gilmour (10-12), another school that flourishes in a number of sports, has taken a similar path to the regional semifinal.

Lancers’ coach Jay Fowler littered Gilmour’s schedule with Division I schools, including St. Edward, Massillon, Walsh Jesuit, Brush, Euclid and Painesville Riverside. While it resulted in a below-.500 record, it also readied the Lancers for games like this one.

“We’re not in a conference, so we try and build up our schedule as much as we can just so we’re as prepared for the playoffs as possible,” Fowler said. “We have some big-time Division I schools on our schedule. We lost a few there, but it seems like we’re peaking at the right time.”

Gilmour is led by a balanced offensive attack, with nine players batting over .300. Fowler said they don’t boast great power, but the Lancers can hit the gaps. He also said the lineup is put together in a specific way.

“We almost have three mini sections to our lineup, where it’s a leadoff, a two hitter and a guy who can bring them in,” said Fowler, whose team scored 20 runs in its past two games. “The last four games, from what we’ve seen, is what we’ve been hoping for all year. The pitching has been more consistent. The hitting has been phenomenal as of late, and our defense has just gotten into a nice rhythm.”

Fowler didn’t divulge Thursday’s starting pitcher, but he did say it is between seniors Brandon Jaces, a Gannon University recruit with a 2.05 ERA, and Matt Botek, a 6-foot-2 lefty with a 1.70 ERA.

Either way, he’s confident the Lancers, who last advanced to the regional in 2009, can hang with the tradition-rich Irish and won’t buckle under the pressure of the regional stage.

“A lot of that comes back to scheduling – playing the bigger schools, being in the bigger environment – that’s when you normally get into those situations,” Fowler said. “We try to amp up the pressure on them as much as possible, whether it’s in the games or when we have pressure-situation scenarios in practice, so they feel as comfortable as possible if they get into those situations.”

They’ll be in plenty of them on Thursday.