Niles adjusts to Poland as foe

It was an early-season trip that Niles baseball coach Mike Guarnieri pointed to as a big reason for his Red Dragons being well prepared for the postseason. Oddly enough, that’s the same reason Niles has a new opponent in the district tournament.

A surprising change of events occurred late last week when Hubbard was removed from the OHSAA baseball tournament and replaced by Poland. According to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, Hubbard violated a by-law when it played a game in a state not adjoining to Ohio while school was in session, resulting in the Eagles’ subsequent disqualification.

The ruling came one day after the Eagles upset Poland, 11-10, in a Division II sectional bracket final. Niles beat Salem, 4-0, on the same day and was preparing to play the Eagles in a Division IV Struthers District semifinal at 4 p.m. Monday.

Guarnieri heard about Hubbard being disqualified the day after his team’s victory.

“In 25 years of doing this, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” said Guarnieri of the circumstances. “I feel horrible for those Hubbard seniors. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is, and that was the ruling. Our philosophy, because people have been asking, is: The only thing I know for certain is that Niles McKinley will be there at 4 o’clock. We’re going to come to play baseball no matter who it is.”

Not much changes for the Red Dragons (19-9).

They played Poland (18-5) twice in the regular season (just like Hubbard) and are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the Bulldogs, who they split with during the year. Even if they didn’t have a scouting report on Poland, Guarnieri said Niles’ focus is on itself. While the atmosphere may become a bit more tense during the tournament, the Red Dragons found out a lot about what the pressure of the postseason feels like during a trip to Myrtle Beach during spring break.

“(You’re) playing great competition down there in sort of a heightened experience,” Guarnieri said. “It’s a little bit more intense down there in terms of the teams that you play and the energy you have to bring, so our kids will be prepared.”

Niles has taken the trip to South Carolina every year since 2012.

Guarnieri doesn’t think it was a coincidence that was the same year they won the first of four conference championships — winning league titles in 2012, ’16, ’17 and ’18. It’s not just the camaraderie and chemistry that is attained during the journey, it’s the focus that is needed to win against high-caliber competition.

“The teams that you’re playing, with social media today and being able to do so much research on the teams that you play, the kids kind of get excited to play teams that represent their states or are ranked in their state,” Guarnieri said. “You have players that are going (to) Division I (colleges), or this team may have had some kids drafted. One team had a couple kids drafted, so it’s just a different experience down there, and it’s a really good test of the type of team that you have.”

This year’s Niles team is well constructed from top to bottom.

There are several veterans who stand out, such as Thiel College-bound catcher Nick Guarnieri, who’s leading the team in batting average (.477), RBIs (27), doubles (13), runs (33) and homers (2); junior first baseman Joe Gallo (.429 BA, 8 doubles, 5 triples); third baseman Kenny Flanigan (.377 BA); senior shortstop/pitcher Corbin Foy (.344 BA, 20 RBIs); and senior pitcher Dylan Weida (55 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings).

There are up-and-coming players as well: sophomores Zach Leonard (.413 BA, 32 runs, team-best 2.01 ERA) and Chase Sudzina (.342 BA, 5 doubles), as well as juniors Brandon Hayes (.325 BA) and David Mays (.312 BA).

It’s a collective unit that is hoping get another chance at an elusive district title, but they’ll have a tough test in front of them with the Bulldogs.

“It’s just an unbelievable program,” Guarnieri said of Poland. “(Coach) Rich Murray does a great job over there every year. His teams are well-coached — good lineups, good pitching, pitching depth. We split with them in the regular season, two really good games, so I would expect that it’s going to boil down to our old philosophy of who pitches and plays the best defense — that’s who’s going to end up winning that game. I really believe that, after playing them twice this year, that the two teams are about to as evenly matched as you can be.”