District-title bound

DeFalco 1-hits West Branch; Niles to face Canfield

Special to Tribune Chronicle / Mike Burich West Branch shortstop Jon Snyder, middle, looks to the umpire for a call as Niles’ Tyler Srbinovich attempts to steal second base Monday at Cene Park. Niles won the game, 3-0, to reach the Division II Struthers District championship game.

STRUTHERS — It wasn’t a typical game for Niles pitcher Marco DeFalco.

He gave up a hit.

DeFalco was three outs away from becoming the third person in Ohio high school history to throw three straight no-hitters, according to OHSAA.org, as he tossed a one-hit shutout to lead the Red Dragons to a 3-0 victory over West Branch in a Division II Struthers District semifinal.

DeFalco, a hard-throwing left-hander, gave up a double to lead off the seventh inning as an opposite-field hit off the bat of Tyler DeShields dropped a few inches inside the left-field line at Bob Cene Park. A double play quickly erased the baserunner, and a grounder ended the game. Niles (19-4) now plays Canfield at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the district title game at Cene Park, and DeFalco insists that reaching the championship was all that was on his mind in the seventh inning.

“In this big of a game, I was more worried about winning this game than anything else,” said DeFalco, who no-hit Southeast in Niles’ first playoff game after no-hitting Lakeview the week before. “I didn’t really have that on my mind until I came in and everyone was messing with me.”

Having a district title in his thoughts isn’t surprising, even considering the circumstances.

Niles hasn’t won a district championship since 1962 despite being one of the more successful teams in the area during the regular reason over the last 20 years. Red Dragons left fielder Joe Proper, who was 2-for-3 with a key RBI double against West Branch, said he and his teammates have to tune out the past and any other distractions when they take the field today. The routine must stay the same.

“Damion Coleman, he comes out of the dugout screaming, ‘Yeah!’,” said Proper of what has become a pre-game ritual. “Marco DeFalco does a spin and jumps right on the (base)line. That gets us warmed up.”

The warm-up took a little longer against the Warriors (19-9).

DeFalco, who has three no-hitters this season, walked the first batter of the game, and the leadoff hitter stole second. DeFalco then threw several pitches to the two-hitter before a ground ball to the second baseman moved the runner to third. DeFalco escaped the early jam with back-to-back strikeouts. The junior finished with 12 strikeouts and two walks.

“He obviously had good velocity, and we were just having a hard time catching up to it,” West Branch coach Shawn Alazaus said. “That was the biggest thing I saw. You don’t face many hard-throwers in high school. A lot of kids say they throw hard, but he was probably throwing 84, 85 (mph). You just don’t see that very much in high school.”

DeFalco also helped his own cause by going 2-for-3 with a triple and two runs scored. He started the fourth inning with a bunt single, move to second on a sacrifice and, after an infield single, came around to score on a double to the right-center field gap by Proper. West Branch starter Brant Alazaus was matching DeFalco up to that point.

“He gave me that curveball, and I knew he wasn’t going to come back with another one,” Proper said of the at-bat. “I was looking fastball, and I just locked in and smacked it.”

Nick Guarnieri followed with a sacrifice fly that scored Coleman from third base. DeFalco tripled to start the sixth and scored on an error by the Warriors’ second baseman to finish the scoring.

The Red Dragons now face the Cardinals (14-6), hoping to win their first district title in 55 years. Niles coach TC Guarnieri said it’s important for the Red Dragons to stay composed.

“That’s the key,” he said. “Just keep doing what we’re doing. Don’t change anything, just keep the same program that we’ve run all year. They’ll be ready, and they’ll be amped, but consistency has been our key all year long. We don’t change anything.”