WARREN – The names ring with tradition of a time when the All-American Conference stood tall in Ohio high school athletics.
Starting in 1963 with charter members Warren G. Harding, Niles McKinley, Canton McKinley and Massillon Washington, the AAC dominated sports across the board, most notably football. Steubenville joined in 1966 and Alliance entered the conference in 1968 to complete a six-team affiliation that lasted through the 1979-80 school year.
For about four cold hours Saturday afternoon on the Harding campus, the baseball teams of Harding, Niles, Massillon and Canton McKinley revived some of the AAC tradition. It turned into a sweep for the Summit-Stark County duo as Massillon defeated Harding, 3-1, and Canton McKinley edged Niles, 3-2.
“In Niles it’s all about the old rivalries with McKinley and Massillon,” Niles coach Mike Guarnieri said. “I don’t know when the last time was we played McKinley. Probably in the ’70s. The kids were excited to come here and play this game.”
The original plan was for each team to play a doubleheader, with Massillon and Canton switching sites after their first games. Poor field conditions at the field in Niles forced the Red Dragons to play at Harding, which meant only one game for each team.
Harding coach Ed Shaker wasn’t pleased with the outcome, but he likes the format.
“It worked out best for everybody,” Shaker said. “Hopefully, we can do this year in and year out.”
The highlight of the two games came on the final swing of the bat in the second game. Niles had scored a run in the bottom of the seventh inning and had Ryan Ifft on second with two outs after his double scored Tyler Wiery. James Tate then swung at the first pitch thrown by Austin Clark and hit a sharp ground ball up the middle that appeared to be a certain hit that would have scored Ifft.
Second baseman Travonte Fields made sure that didn’t happen by making one of the best defensive plays anyone will see this year anywhere. Fields dove to his right to snare the ball and then quickly rose to his feet and retired Tate to end the game.
“That kid is a big-time, Division I athlete,” Guarnieri said. “He made a great play. We can’t put ourselves in that situation score two runs on two hits and wait until the seventh inning to get something going.”
Clark started and went the distance, striking out eight and walking seven. He walked three straight batters in the third after a single by Wiery, who scored on a walk to Ifft. Clark struck out Tate to avoid more damage.
The Bulldogs scored two runs in the first. Back-to-back doubles by Deonte Settles and Fields produced the first run, and Fields scored on a single by James Smith.
Nick Faulkner singled in Romero Harris to give the Bulldogs a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning.
Dragons starting pitcher Jake Foster had a strong effort in a losing cause. He struck out four and walked one in going the distance.
Massillon starter Dakota Caldwell limited the Raiders to three hits in 6 1/3 innings. Caldwell struck out six and walked two.
The Raiders’ best chance to make a statement came when they loaded the bases with one out on two walks and a single in the first inning. Caldwell struck out Dylan Pflager, and Matt Jones popped out to end the threat.
“So far this year we haven’t had any consistency offensively,” Shaker said. “We’re looking to put something together. We had our opportunity in the first inning. One hit and it’s a 3-1 ball game. We just needed a hit here or there.”
The Tigers scored one run in the first, fourth and fifth innings. The Raiders scored once in the seventh with the help of three errors.
Kyle Kempt of Massillon had two hits and drove in one run.