Russell leads Flashes to win
LIBERTY — Liberty baseball coach Tom Otto knows a good deal about Champion pitcher Andrew Russell.
Aside from coaching against him the last few years at the high school level, he also coached against him in a summer league at Cene Park in Struthers.
There’s one fact that Otto knows best: Russell is a senior.
“I’m so glad that kid’s graduating,” said Otto with a wry grin.
The rest of Champion’s opponents probably feel the same way.
Russell hit the first home run of his high school career and allowed one run over six innings to lift the Golden Flashes over Liberty, 7-3, in an All-American Conference Blue Tier clash.
It looked like Otto and the Leopards might have concocted a winning recipe against Russell and unbeaten Champion (6-0, 5-0) after they scored a run against him in the first inning and nearly added another in the second. The hard-throwing right-hander settled in after that though.
Russell, an Ohio University recruit, set Liberty (2-5, 2-3) down in order over the next three innings and finished with seven strikeouts and one walk. He allowed four hits.
Maybe the biggest play he made was when he sent a fastball over the center field fence to give Champion a 2-1 lead in the third inning. He pumped his fist and screamed to his teammates as he saw the ball clear fence.
“We were flat, and everybody in the dugout would tell you (that),” Champion coach Rick Yauger said. “You could feel it, and Andrew’s home run, which put us up, gave us the lead, it absolutely sparked everybody.”
The Golden Flashes needed a lift because Liberty pitcher Mike Everly was on his game as well.
Another hard-throwing right-hander who can hit the mid-80s with his fastball, Everly struck out 10 and walked one over six innings. He allowed four runs (three earned) and six hits. He was sharp until the sixth, when a deep fly ball by Russell, which looked like it could have been caught, fell in for a double. Everly hit the next batter, and Adam Fisher singled in a run. An error allowed another run to score, and that was all Russell and the Flashes needed.
“I did struggle to hit my spots, not keeping the ball low,” Russel said, “but that’s just how it is and why I have my defense to back me up. And we had the bats come alive when we needed it.”
Champion tacked on three runs in the seventh inning to seal the win, with a two-run single by Fisher being the big blow.
While the Golden Flashes are led by Russell, Fisher, and a few other upperclassmen, much of their team is made up of underclassmen. Yauger expected there to be some growing pains to start the season, but Champion is already ahead of the pack in the AAC’s Blue Tier.
“A lot of kids have been willing to listen and do the things we’re asking them to do,” said Yauger of why things have come together quicker than expected. “They’re having quality at-bats. Our pitchers are going out and getting that first-pitch strike and throwing quality innings, and (we’ve) really played within ourselves and aren’t doing too much. We have to be a 1 through 9 team. We have some pop in the middle of our lineup, but we really need everybody to contribute to be successful, and we’ve been getting that.”
Otto doesn’t think his Leopards are far off either.
They have some tough losses to quality teams, but there is plenty of talent. Aside from Everly, Dwight Parker, Trevor Strohmeyer, Jake Scoville and Brennan Romain piece together a solid pitching staff. Much like Champion, Liberty needs contributions from top to bottom in the batting order, and that is a work in progress.
“I’m optimistic about this team,” said Otto, who led Liberty to their first winning season in over five years in 2018. “We’re pretty young. Right now, we’re only starting three seniors. At times, we have six sophomores in the lineup. We’ve got three pretty good pitchers for the high school level. We played three good teams in our conference right away, so unfortunately we probably have to win out to win the league now, and obviously (Champion) is pretty good, so that’s something we’ve got to figure out.
“But I’m proud of our kids,” he added. “We competed. We played hard. There’s a reason that Andrew is going to Ohio University. He hits the home run. That was a big momentum turn for them. But we’ll figure it out. We’re going to be a pretty good baseball team by the end of the season.”
The two teams meet again Wednesday in Champion.