Red Dragons win third straight AAC White Tier title
NILES — This was supposed to be the year Niles baseball succumbed to the losses of graduation.
The Red Dragons’ two-year reign as All-American Conference, White Tier champions was going to end. Their run of success would falter as they attempted to integrate young, unproven players into the fold. Niles was going to return to normalcy.
Only, it didn’t.
Even after losing one of their best players in Corbin Foy and having an ugly start to the season, the Red Dragons found a way.
Niles won a winner-take-all showdown with Hubbard, 11-1, in five innings on Friday at Wilder Field to claim the White Tier for the third straight season.
“This doesn’t get old,” said a soaked Niles coach Mike Guarnieri seconds after his players dumped a Gatorade cooler full of water on him. “I’m just so proud of this team. We’ve been through so much.
“We lost a lot of guys, a lot of good players,” he added. “We had some young kids step in, some freshmen stepped in. We lost Corbin Foy, our shortstop, to the ACL (injury) in basketball season. Some things happened today, (but) these guys keep coming. They just keep coming. They buy into what we’re preaching here. It’s a beautiful thing to see young men buy into something and sacrifice for it and then get rewarded.”
The rewards were plentiful Friday.
Niles (13-11, 9-3), which lost six starters from last year’s team, came in tied atop the White Tier with Hubbard (16-11, 8-4), owning identical conference records, but the Red Dragons created some separation between the teams right away. After giving up a run in the top of the first inning and trailing 1-0, Niles scored three runs in the bottom of the first and never looked back — adding four in the second and three more in the third.
“Everyone on the team is seeing the ball real well,” Niles senior second baseman Luke Swauger said. “We’re hitting gaps, we’re hitting shots everywhere and we’re scoring runs — doing what we need to do.”
The Red Dragons rattled off 17 hits, lacing line drives all over the field. Junior Nick Guarnieri — Mike’s nephew and the son of assistant T.C. Guarnieri — and sophomore Joe Gallo each had four hits. They both drove in three runs as well, as did senior Marco DeFalco.
Niles was in the winner-take-all scenario because of a heartbreaking, 10-9, loss to Jefferson on Thursday, giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth after taking the lead in the top half of the nine-inning affair.
“These guys were hungry,” Mike Guarnieri said. “They were hungry today.”
Red Dragons starting pitcher Dylan Weida settled in after a shaky first inning.
He allowed just four hits and struck out three while walking four and yielding one earned run. Things could have gone awry in the first inning, as Hubbard had its first two runners on with no outs, but a sacrifice fly, a strikeout and an infield pop-up by the Eagles’ three, four and five hitters ended the threat.
“We knew the game wasn’t over — it’s one run in the first inning,” said Niles catcher Nick Guarnieri, who doubled twice. “We came back out, put a couple (runs) up and just tried to give Dylan some run support, so he could go out and be more relaxed. I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
Hubbard, which won its own wild game on Thursday to give it a chance at the AAC title, just couldn’t slow down a potent Niles offense.
“Credit to them — those were rockets,” Hubbard coach John Schiraldi said of Niles’ hitting. “They’re a good team. There’s a reason they’ve won it that many years in a row, and there’s a reason they’re still in the tournament. Good team, well coached, and they hit the ball.
“Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail.”
Niles season hasn’t climaxed yet. The fifth-seeded Red Dragons face Poland, a No. 8 seed, in the district semifinal Tuesday at Cene Park in Struthers. DeFalco, who pitched Niles into the district final last year, said the good vibes from Friday won’t do much for them Tuesday. Still, he likes the way the Red Dragons are playing after a long season of piecing together a young team.
“We came out today and our bats were hot, and we just played that to our advantage,” he said. “We went away from the small ball a little bit because everyone was getting hits. … That’s how we’ve been all year as a team. It’s like a puzzle. We put the pieces together and we score runs.”