Champion rallies past LaBrae, 9-4

LEAVITTSBURG — Champion baseball coach Rick Yauger said after Tuesday’s game that it doesn’t take a village — but a dugout — to win a championship.

For his Golden Flashes, that mindset will be carried for at least one more game, after Champion defeated LaBrae, 9-4, in a Division III district semifinal at LaBrae High School.

Champion overcame a 4-0 deficit, posting a five-run third inning as part of the comeback, to propel the Flashes to today’s district title game. The top-seeded Flashes will take on Grand Valley/Hawken at 4:30.

“We became a little bit more patient hitting baseball team. We started to realize to take what he’s (LaBrae starting pitcher J.T. Wolke) gonna give us — don’t press,” Yauger said of the Flashes’ comeback.

“When we relax, we start letting the game come to us, instead of chasing it. Most of our base hits, we were taking the ball where it was pitched. (Wolke’s) a good pitcher, so you gotta take what he’s going to give you.”

After a quick first inning, LaBrae jumped out in front first. The Vikings forced Champion starter Drake Batcho — who came into the game with a 6-1 record on the year — into a jam in the top of the second.

AJ Jones led with a single, followed by a Sam Wells walk, two batters later. Batcho struck out Ethan Stishan to get the second out of the inning, but then proceeded to load the bases with another walk.

Malakai Roberts then drove a single to left field to score Jones and Wells, giving LaBrae a 2-0 lead. An error at third loaded the bases again, which was followed by back-to-back RBI singles from Zack Morris and Tyler Morris, giving the Vikings a 4-0 advantage.

Champion (22-3), however, did not lay down. The Flashes, who have beaten LaBrae three times this season, quickly countered with three runs of its own in the second inning.

A hit batsman and a walk started off the inning, before Andrew Russell drove in Batcho to put the Flashes on the board. Justin Taninecz then drove in AJ Meyer with a single past first base, and then Lucas Nasonti’s sacrifice fly to right field brought home pinch runner Logan Brown, cutting the deficit to 4-3.

Champion was not done, however. In the bottom of the third, the Flashes exploded for five more runs, as singles from Michael Turner and Aaron Williams were followed by an error at second base, bringing Turner in to score and ultimately tying the game at 4-4.

A two-run single into the right field gap by Meyer brought home Williams and Batcho, putting the Flashes ahead for good. Wolke was chased out of the game after just two-plus innings, as Champion added two more runs after his exit, thanks to another error and a fielder’s choice.

“Champion is a very good team and they showed today how mentally tough they are, getting down 4-0 and they battled right back,” LaBrae coach Rick Aldridge said. “Batcho’s a great pitcher, J.T.’s a great pitcher. But, sometimes you’re a little off. We were very patient early and got some clutch hits that made it tough on (Batcho), and in turn, they did the same thing right back to us.”

Russell, who replaced Batcho after two innings, was expected to start in the district title game. However, Yauger rolled the dice and went with Russell in a relief role on Tuesday, and it certainly paid off.

Russell pitched five innings and allowed just two hits and no runs, to go along with seven strikeouts and just one walk. After a strong second inning, LaBrae did not have an answer for Champion, as the Flashes managed to add an additional run in the sixth.

The Vikings (13-5) will lose five seniors, but will also return plenty of talented youngsters. According to Aldridge, it’s all part of a “learning experience,” and there’s no better way to learn how to win than in the postseason.

As for the Flashes, the veteran team’s time is now. For Yauger, Champion’s success comes from the relationships his players have built with one another this season.

“We have some quality young men on this team, and them learning to trust each other has been very important. Everybody, one through 14 in the dugout, can get it done. Guys don’t have to press and do too much, nobody has to carry the team on their shoulders.

“We’re a very good baseball team, we know what we’re capable of doing. Whatever team comes out and throws quality innings, puts the ball in play and makes all the routine plays will give themselves a chance to advance.”