Facing a perennial foe

Mathews, Springfield square off in regional semi

Tribune Chronicle file photo / Joe Simon Mathews pitcher Adam Wibert throws against Grand Valley earlier this season. The Mustangs play Springfield in a Division IV Strongsville Regional semifinal on Thursday.

Reaching the regional was a long time coming for Mathews and coach Jared Terlecky.

It often seems like a right of passage to the Mustangs’ opponent.

Mathews (20-3) takes on Springfield (25-3) at 2 p.m., Thursday in a Division IV Strongsville Regional semifinal at Strongsville High School between two of the Mahoning Valley’s most traditionally successful programs.

While Mathews’ district championship was the baseball team’s first since 1996, the Mustangs have been the class of the Northeastern Athletic Conference for years and are 127-35 in Terlecky’s seven years as coach.

The Tigers’ tournament success has went on for decades. They won district titles in 2008, ’09, ’11, ’12, ’13, ’18 and this year. They’ve been to the state tournament four times and were runners-up in 2013, ’11, ’09 and 1980.

The two perennial winners play for a chance to etch some more history into their lineage.

“There have been multiple times we’ve run into them in the tournament,” said Terlecky, who played at Mathews and was an assistant coach for nine years under former head coach and current assistant Dan Kennedy. “When we were in the Struthers District before we got moved up to (Fairport Harbor), it seemed like if you were going to win that district, you had to beat them. There were years we faced them in the sectional and lost. There were years we faced in the district semifinals and lost. We beat them in the semifinals once. They got us more times than we got them.

“They’ve got a strong baseball tradition down there. They’re always tough.”

The teams are led by pitching and defense, which doesn’t seem like a coincidence.

Mathews boasts a 1-2 pitching punch that may now have a third member. Starter Adam Wibert set the school record with 89 strikeouts, doing it in 49 1/3 innings. The hard-throwing right-hander, who can hit 90 mph with his fastball, owns a 1.14 ERA and batters are hitting just .084 against him. Fellow senior Jackson Iceman is equally tough, with 60 strikeouts and a 2.95 ERA over 33 innings.

One of the difference-makers in the tournament has been Zach Rhodanz. The junior has become a reliable reliever (he closed out the final two innings of the district championship) as he sports a 1.64 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings.

“Zach, he has come on little by little where I trust him at the end of games for an inning or two,” Terlecky said. “He’s real cool under pressure. That’s kind of been the biggest difference. Most teams always have their one guy that they can count on. We’ve been blessed, we’ve always had that. I’m able to throw him out there in a big game. Then, the second game, I’ve had some very good guys, but not quite the level that we can look at now in the second game. And now to have Zach… Our team ERA is its lowest it’s ever been. Right now, it would be a team record (at 1.75).”

Springfield coach Terry Dobson is well aware of the Mustangs’ pitching prowess.

As a coach in the summer league at Cene Park, he has first-hand experience against Wibert.

“He can bring it,” Dobson said. “Iceman is behind him. He brings it. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

His Tigers counter with a deep lineup led by Mitchell Seymour, who paces the team with a .455 batting average. He’s one of eight players batting .317 or better as numerous players contribute for Springfield. The pitching is deep as well.

Chris Thompson owns a 1.34 ERA over 41 2/3 innings. Shane Eynon is 7-0, and Jarrett Orbin has 36 strikeouts in 32 innings.

The Tigers rallied from late deficits in both the district semifinal and final, and Dobson said his team, and all of New Middletown, is enjoying the run.

“It’s a thrill for the kids,” he said. “That’s what high school baseball is all about, and that’s why I do it. To see the smiles on their faces and the joy in the community.”

The winner faces the winner of Jeromesville Hillsdale and Attica Seneca East. The way to get there isn’t all that complicated at this point.

“You’re one of the last 16 teams in the state,” Terlecky said. “If you played them a couple times, every one of them would beat you. And at the same time, if you’ve made it this far, you’re good enough to beat about every single one of them.

“Now, it just comes down to execution.”