Strong Niles squad ready to defend AAC title

NILES – No one is going to find any championship banners or T-shirts around the Niles High School baseball team.

Considering the Red Dragons won the American Division of the AAC in 2012 – beating Division I and II schools like Austintown Fitch, Canfield, Howland and Poland – not seeing any mementoes from that season might seem a bit odd.

There’s a reason for it.

“When we first walked in for baseball lifting in August, coach Mike (Guarnieri) had AAC champs written up on the board,” recalled senior Ryan Ifft. “And then he had somebody erase it.

“This is a new start. We have a target on our back, so we have to go perform again.”

Niles certainly has the talent to do it. The Red Dragons lost just two seniors from last year’s 18-9, 9-1 AAC team, and they bring back a team loaded with skill and experience. Eight seniors return, and nearly all of them made key contributions on last year’s team. Ifft is one of them. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound catcher is one of the better players in the area. He was a first-team all-AAC selection last year as he didn’t commit an error behind the plate while also leading the team in doubles (6) and RBIs (22) and batting .351.

He said personal stats don’t mean much to him, or any of the other seven seniors. The group has played together since they were in Little League, and with this being their last hurrah together, they’re focused on more important matters.

“I want to win an AAC championship and go far in the playoffs,” Ifft said. “Those are goals we set for ourselves. We want to do something big in our last year. Leave our mark on Niles.”

Ifft will have plenty of help. Senior Tyler Wiery, a shortstop, was one of the best defenders on the team last year with a .964 fielding percentage. He tied for the team lead in runs (24) and was first in walks (18), stolen bases (12) and on-base percentage (.505). He also hit .361.

“He’s fantastic,” said Guarnieri, now in his sixth season. “He’s going to make the routine, he’s going to make the spectacular. He’s as consistent as there is.

“Last year he made the final out against Canfield, which was pretty much a conference championship game. Every practice rep is the same intensity as that play. He’s the guy I tell the JV kids to look at and to watch during practice.”

The pitching staff is talented as well. Senior Jacob Foster, an Indiana Tech recruit, was the team’s ace last year, leading the Red Dragons with a 6-0 record and 42 strikeouts to go along with a 3.00 ERA. Right behind behind him is Noah Arvin, another senior with plenty of experience. He owned a 3.75 ERA last season and 29 strikeouts in 28 innings. There’s depth, too, with solid pitchers in Wiery and fellow seniors Brennen Baker and Grant Martin. Ifft also could see time on the mound, but Foster will be the leader of the staff.

“Jake’s been a four-year starter for us pitching and playing wise,” Guarnieri said. “He’s a good power arm. He knows how to set guys up, how to get guys out and he saves his pitch count – he’s not trying to strike everyone out. He’s a fierce competitor. He wants the ball every day.”

Competitor was a word Guarnieri used a lot when talking about the eight seniors – and the team in general. He talked extensively about their dedication and love for the game. Players like Ian Hileman (a .338 hitter last year) and J.C. Pierko (.333) have been part of the program for a long time, and the juniors, too, are seasoned and play the game the right way.

“To have senior leadership and guys who go about their work this way, it’s fun to watch,” Guarnieri said. “They’re professional and they handle themselves well. Every rep is important, every swing is important. They’re focused. They really want to get to the point where they’re peaking in May.”