Champion, LaBrae meet again

Momentum is a fickle thing in the game of baseball, especially at the high school level, and two teams set to go head-to-head today are ready to test a couple of theories.

LaBrae comes into a Division III Niles District semifinal game against Champion playing as well as it has all season. The fifth-seeded Vikings (11-8) are winners of four of their last five games, including two dominating wins in the postseason in which they outscored their opponents, 24-2.

The top-seeded Golden Flashes (13-4) have only played once in the past 11 days, a 9-0 tournament win over Cardinal to reach this point.

Champion has momentum’s X-factor, however. His name is Andrew Russell, an Ohio University-bound right-hander with an ERA of 0.16, and he can bring momentum to a screeching halt when the two meet at 4 p.m. in Niles at Wilder Field.

“I think when you are playing a lot of baseball — we played seven games in 10 days — a lot of good things start happening,” LaBrae coach Jim Bailey said. “You get a lot of reps in, and good things happen. But when you go up against solid pitching, that destroys momentum. When you’ve got a guy that’s a good pitcher — not a thrower, but a good pitcher — he can destroy your momentum.

“You can be on a high, and then one game later, you’re trying to figure things out again.”

Bailey’s Vikings may have figured things out, and he doesn’t expect them to be intimidated by the hard-throwing Russell, for a couple of reasons.

LaBrae held a 2-0 lead against Russell and the Flashes earlier this season before a close game got away from the Vikings in the later innings (Champion won, 9-2). They also have an ace of their own in junior righty Malakai Roberts, who owns a 1.78 ERA to go with 89 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched.

He ended up taking the loss in the regular-season matchup with the Flashes, but he pitched well for much of the game. Champion coach Rick Yauger is well aware of Roberts’ potential, but he always feels confident with Russell taking the ball.

“I like having him on the hill for us (today), I’m not going to lie,” he said. “But Malakai, we’re familiar with him. We faced him a lot. He has good stuff. He’s a good pitcher. It shapes up to be a pitching battle.”

The difference between the two teams in the first game was timely hitting, an area that is magnified and of the utmost importance in the postseason.

Champion came through with some clutch hits with men on base in the May 1 matchup, while the Vikings missed a few opportunities to get to Russell in the early innings. That’s an area a young LaBrae team has improved upon since the loss to the Flashes.

“We’ve had solid pitching all year,” Bailey said. “Our two main starters, Malakai and Ashton Dunbar, they have been doing a really nice job of throwing strikes, and the key hits are finally coming. And it’s not just from any one guy, it’s up and down the lineup. There’s guys that you can always count on, but some of the guys at the bottom of the order are really starting to come through.

“It’s good when you have a full team working together.”

Champion knows the process LaBrae is enjoying quite well.

The Golden Flashes only have three seniors, so Yauger was expecting a season that started slow and improved as the year went on. The development came quicker than anticipated, with younger players stepping up from the outset.

They have lost just one conference game all season, have another solid starter to go with Russell in lefty Abe Bayus (2.96 ERA) and possess a deep lineup that boasts six players batting at least .333. They’re led by the senior trio of Russell, who has a team-best .520 batting average and 10 doubles, Matt Horvat (.440 BA, team-high 14 RBIs) and Nolan Yartz (.415 BA).

The mixture of youth and veteran leadership has blended well, and Yauger is leaning on the upperclassmen to quell the pressure the tournament can bring.

“They help break the tension a little bit and relax them,” Yauger said. “They understand that it’s still a game to be enjoyed. They want to go out and compete, and that’s the fun of it — you’re going to go out and compete. Every time you step on the field, you have a chance to lose, but go compete and enjoy that. Use that emotion and anxiety that’s in you for the better — for energy, to get you up, to get you excited to want to go play. Our three seniors, they understand that. They don’t approach it tightly, and that does filter down through (to the younger players).”

All the proverbial juices will be flowing today for two teams that seem to have momentum on their side.

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