On to the district

Niles blanks Salem behind Weida’s two-hitter

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Niles’ Zach Leonard dives back to first base as Salem first baseman Lane Rhodes awaits a pick-off attempt Wednesday. Leonard had two hits in the Red Dragons’ 4-0 win over the Quakers in a Division II sectional bracket final.

NILES — The Niles McKinley High School baseball team had a plan against Salem in their Division II sectional bracket final, and coach Mike Guarnieri swore it wasn’t to wear out the Quakers left fielder.

The Red Dragons scored three times in the first inning thanks to four consecutive hits down the left-field line, and Dylan Weida tossed a two-hitter in a 4-0 win over Salem at Wilder Field.

The plan for third-seeded Niles (19-9), which now faces No. 7 Hubbard in a district semifinal, was the same plan Guarnieri and his brother, assistant coach TC Guarnieri, have used for the past few decades.

“When you get to tournament time, it’s all about pitching and defense,” Mike Guarnieri said. “You’ve got to minimize your mistakes and not give your opponents extra outs. It’s huge to play good defense at this time. Really, baseball in general is pitching and defense, if you ask me. That’s what we’ve always tried to build our teams around, and you usually have a lot of success when you do those two things.”

Both were on display Wednesday.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Niles pitcher Dylan Weida throws a pitch during the Red Dragons’ Division II sectional bracket final against Salem on Wednesday.

Weida was dominant, and it was largely because of a near-flawless defense. He only struck out four (walking two) in a complete-game performance, so his defense was busy. The only error the Red Dragons committed came with two out in the seventh inning, with the game in hand.

“I felt great the whole time,” Weida said. “I kept the pitch count low, so that’s a good thing. Throwing strikes, that makes everything better. They hit the ball to my guys, they made plays — there’s nothing more you can ask for.”

The Red Dragons flew out to start the bottom of the first, but the bats heated up from there.

Corbin Foy laced a single down the line, and then Nick Guarnieri (TC’s son) slapped an opposite-field base hit to the left side. Joe Gallo followed with an RBI single just inside third base, and David Mays made it four straight hits with another hard-hit ball down the line to bring in a run. A fielder’s choice with the bases loaded made it 3-0.

Niles missed a few chances to add to its lead, leaving runners stranded in five of the final six innings, but it didn’t matter with Weida and the defense on their game. Kenny Flanigan’s run-scoring double in the third was the only extra-base hit by either team.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Niles first baseman Joe Gallo fields a ground ball in the third inning of the Red Dragons’ 4-0 victory over Salem on Wednesday.

The senior third baseman said the early runs weren’t by chance, and they seemed to put the players’ minds at ease.

“Our saying is ‘early and often,’ “ Flanigan said of their approach. “We like to attack early and put some runs up on the scoreboard. (Going to left field) was just the way the ball was falling. I’ve been doing that all year though.

“With us hitting one through nine, it helped us out tremendously throughout the year,” he added. “If you have a hole (in the lineup), and you don’t have guys behind you to pick you up, there’s not much you can do.”

Seven different Niles players had at least one hit.

The Red Dragons will try to keep things going against Hubbard, which upset second-seeded Poland, 11-10, on Wednesday. Niles beat the Eagles twice during the regular season, but Hubbard has won 10 of its last 12 games.

Both teams will get a rest as they don’t play until 5 p.m. Monday at Cene Park in Struthers. Weida said he and the Red Dragons feel confident.

“I love the way we’re playing,” Weida said. “I think we can take (the district), honestly. We’re one step closer.”