There’s no secret to playoff success

Don’t overthink.

It’s a problem most people have – including myself. Looking too far into something can make even the simplest tasks seem like rocket science. Just the other day I spent an hour trying to decide whether to go to Subway or Brothers Pizza. By the time I decided, both places were closed, and I was left eating vending-machine food that my dog wouldn’t even sniff. … Oops.

The concept is similar when looking for a winning baseball team. It may be called a “thinking-man’s game,” but it doesn’t take Albert Einstein to know what makes a good ballclub. This is important information for those of you wondering which area teams have a shot to advance in this year’s high school playoffs, which start this week. It’s been a while since Trumbull County has seen a baseball team advance deep into the postseason (Champion going to the state semifinals in 2005 is the most recent that comes to mind). Mahoning County has sent numerous teams to the regional and state finals, mainly Springfield and Ursuline. Grand Valley made a memorable run last year. So, who will be the story of 2013?

It’s tough to say because of the parity this season. There doesn’t appear to be a dominant team. Ursuline, led by hard-throwing pitcher Sam Donko, was undefeated for much of the year and will be a force to be reckoned with in Division III, but the Fighting Irish dropped two straight last week to Boardman and Canfield. That doesn’t mean they’re not the team to beat, but it shows the overall talent in the area. The balance should lead to plenty of intriguing early-round matchups (see Page 4C), including a possible second-round showdown between Niles and Canfield.

Niles is the defending All-American Conference, American Division champion, and the Red Dragons possess all the tools needed to play deep into the postseason. But the Cardinals trounced Niles earlier this year and have plenty of experience after going to the Division II district final the last two years, winning it in 2012. Canfield coach Matt Koenig said the formula for postseason success isn’t all that complex.

“Your pitchers are priority No. 1, and defense is No. 2,” said Koenig, in his eighth year with the Cardinals. “The offense will take care of itself. You can always bunt a guy over or hit a sac fly or do whatever it takes to score a run, but pitching and defense are the No. 1 keys.”

It’s the same winning concept baseball teams have used for years – at all levels. Not many people know that better than longtime Warren G. Harding coach Ed Shaker. His Raiders have a tough first-round showdown with Boardman at 4 p.m. on Thursday. The winner plays Howland the next day, which is why pitching depth is so critical in the playoffs. A starter obviously can’t pitch two days in a row, so having a solid No. 2 and 3 is vital.

Two teams with good rotations and the potential to wreak havoc in Division III are Brookfield and LaBrae. They meet in the first round at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. The Warriors have played a brutal schedule, so it’s unlikely they’ll be intimidated by the opposition, and they have the talent to make a run. LaBrae was one of the better teams in the National Division of the All-American Conference, and they have the pitching to contend, making them an interesting team. The winner of their game plays South Range, a team not many people know about that has played extremely well this season.

Division IV is probably the most competitive, with as many as four or five schools with the ability to win a district title. Top-seeded Springfield has to be the favorite. The Tigers have established themselves as one of the elite programs in northeast Ohio, but they’ll have their work cut out for them in this district. McDonald, the second seed, has just two losses this season, and Mathews, No. 3, has experience, a deep rotation and a senior-laden team ready to make a run.

You also can’t count out Mineral Ridge, which has been powered by the ridiculous season of catcher Dan Ferguson. The senior batting an even .500, and of his 20 hits, six are home runs and seven are doubles. He’s also walked 20 times and struck out just twice. Teams will likely pitch around him, so the rest of the lineup will need to pick up the slack.

When it comes down to it, the areas Koenig talked about – pitching and defense – will be essential in deciding who moves on and whose season ends. What makes the postseason so much fun is that it doesn’t matter how your team has performed to this point. If they can do it when it counts, it will make for an interesting couple of weeks.

“It’s the tournament, anything can happen in the tournament,” Koenig said.