Champion looking to come together

The year, the game, the run, even the day — it’s all still fresh in the mind of most people in Champion.

The Golden Flashes ended a 73-year drought in 2017 when they became the first Trumbull County baseball team to win a state title since Leavittsburg in 1943. Not surprisingly, the Champion softball team won a state championship as well — just a few hours later. It was a day that will live on in infamy around Champion.

That was two years ago, and only a few current Champion baseball players took part in that game. The team that set the standard for all other Mahoning Valley baseball teams is trying to climb its way back to the top.

“We’re pretty devoid of anybody that was on the (championship) team,” Champion coach Rick Yauger said. “… The talent’s there. We’ve just got to come together as a team.”

One key player from the title team remains: Andrew Russell.

The right-hander pitched a complete-game shutout in the championship — as a sophomore — and was nearly unhittable in the postseason, tossing 34 consecutive scoreless innings to close out the 2017 season. The Ohio University commit is now a senior leader on a relatively young team that needs more than just Russell to be competitive and put together another postseason run.

Russell, who had a 0.34 ERA in 2018, and Abe Bayus, a hard-throwing lefty who Yauger expects to have a big year, will be the building blocks for the Golden Flashes.

“When you can roll out an Andrew Russell as your 1 and an Abe Bayus as your 2, you always have a chance,” Yauger said. “When you can pitch it from the hill, and we’re deep there, that gives you an opportunity. It overcomes mistakes, or if you have a couple kids having a bad day at the plate, your pitching helps you overcome that.”

The reason pitching is so important is because the Golden Flashes are young in several other areas.

While Champion is coming off a 15-2 season, it lost some key players — including Drake Batcho, now a pitcher for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Batcho also was a force at the plate, as was A.J. Meyer, Justin Ellsworth, Noah Gradishar and Griffin Howell, who all graduated.

Aside from a talented group of up-and-coming young players, there are some veterans to fill the voids. Russell tied Batcho for the team lead in batting average last year at .474. Senior Nolan Yartz batted .417 and had team-highs in hits (20) and doubles (6). The Golden Flashes also have help from senior Matt Horvat, a former Howland player who recently moved into the Champion school district.

An intriguing group of underclassmen, such as sophomores Aaron Ellsworth, Adam Fisher and Zach Bickel along with freshmen Jack O’Shaugnessy, Nathan Holt and Kale Klingeman, provide potential for the present and the future.

“We have a nice core group of sophomores,” Yauger said. “They’re all kids who got some experience, but we’re relying on them to take the next step.”

Where those steps take them is anyone’s guess.

Yauger is confident, especially with a deep rotation, and while he expected it to take some time for the younger players to adjust to the varsity level, they’re 5-0 to start the season. The fast start is important in what could be a tight conference race.

Yauger expects competition in the All-American Conference’s Blue Tier to be stiff, and it looks like the Flashes will be in the mix.

“We want to compete in every game, we want to compete to win the league,” Yauger said of their goals. “We want to work to play our best baseball in the middle of May when the tournament rolls around. …

“I realistically think, if things go the way they should go and we stay healthy, we have an opportunity to play for a district championship.”

If that happens, maybe there could be another intrepid Champion run on hand.