Dragons take care of what’s in front of them

NILES – They’re cliche, and Mike Guarnieri knows it. So does his team.

None of them care because there’s meaning behind the sayings Guarnieri, the Niles’ baseball coach, and his staff instill into the Red Dragons.

“Everybody thinks it’s cliche when we talk about pitch-to-pitch, inning-to-inning, game-to-game,” Guarnieri said, “but these guys buy into it. They believe it. They believe in taking care of what’s right in front of you. And we always preach to them that every opportunity you have to play is precious, so we’re going to get after it. No matter who the opponent is, we’re going to refocus and do what we have to do to win a baseball game.”

Its belief in such an adage was never so evident than in Niles’ 6-3 victory over Champion in a clash between two of the area’s best teams. Such a showdown normally would have any team pumped up and ready to play, but the Red Dragons (22-2) won the White Tier of the All-American Conference just minutes before their game against Champion with an 11-1 win over Lakeview in the first game of a two-team doubleheader at Eastwood Field.

Their celebration lasted all of about two minutes, and no one needed to forget about it more than Niles starting pitcher Marco DeFalco.

“Like coach Mike says, ‘We got 20 wins now. That’s in the past. We’ve got to focus on the 21st and the 22nd win,’ ” Defalco said. “That’s what we did today.”

DeFalco made sure of it.

The hard-throwing left-hander struggled with his control at times and pitched from behind in the count for much of the game, but he kept finding ways to get out of trouble. He loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning but induced a pop out, struck out a batter and got a ground out to escape unscathed. He also left two runners stranded in both the second and third innings, which is no easy task against a Golden Flashes team that lost just its third game of the season, falling to 14-3, and came in batting .368 as a team.

“Most of the time that comes back to haunt you,” said Champion coach Rick Yauger of wasting the early opportunities, “and it did. Give (DeFalco) credit. He made pitches when he needed to make them.”

Defalco walked seven, but he struck out five, allowed two runs in four innings and was a big reason the Golden Flashes left 11 runners on base. Just a sophomore, Defalco also helped his own cause by going 2-for-3 at the plate with an RBI and a run.

The league title probably meant more to Niles’ six seniors (Geno Barricella, Cameron Carson, Jaret Johnson, Richard Limongi, Garrett Pitts and Brandon Weida) anyone else. The group has played on the same team for years (some since Little League), but Defalco said they make sure everyone knows they’re equally important.

“I love this team,” he said. “We’re not like a team, we’re like brothers. I can’t imagine myself playing with anybody else but these guys now, so it’s going to be hard when all the seniors leave this year.”

Several of those seniors contributed in the win over Champion. Limongi (2-for-3, one run) singled and scored in a two-run second inning, and Pitts and Johnson both did the same in a two-run third. The Golden Flashes cut into the 4-0 lead with two runs in the fifth (on a passed ball and a ground out), but Niles responded in the sixth with two more. Champion put two on with no out in the seventh but only one came across as Jeff Hosey completed a three-inning save.

Both of the wins were important to Guarnieri, who with the help of his brother, T.C., has built one of the stronger programs in the Mahoning Valley. Even so, the league title – the second of Mike’s nine-year tenure – is something he and the Red Dragons didn’t overlook, regardless of how quickly they moved on from it.

“A lot,” said Guarnieri of what the championship meant to the team, who doused with him with Gatorade seconds later. “It feels good.

“My brother and I, we’ve been doing this so long, and we got one a couple years ago and now to come back and get another one, it means a lot to my family, to this baseball family, the community of Niles and the school. It’s a big deal for us. It really is. … And when you have a year like this one, you want to have something to hold on to. These kids have had an unbelievable season. I’m extremely proud of this group, and they’ve earned it.”