Learning to win
Young Dragons in first victory
NILES — Good Friday was indeed good for the Niles baseball team.
Sophomore southpaw pitcher Matt Kozak, making his second varsity start, allowed two hits in six-plus innings and added a two-out, two-run double during a six-run fifth inning as the Red Dragons beat Ashtabula Edgewood, 9-0, for their first win of the season Friday at Wilder Field in Waddell Park.
“This is a big win for us because we’re very young and already have dealt with some adversity, so now maybe we can relax and compete with belief moving forward,” veteran coach Mike Guarnieri said. “The goal for us this year is to continue to improve and hit our stride in time for the tournament.”
The Red Dragons (1-3) knew entering the season they would be without one of their top pitchers in junior Anthony Fisher, who is coming off Tommy John surgery but is playing third base. During a loss to South Range early this week, senior Zach Leonard, a pitcher and shortstop, pulled a hamstring and is expected to miss a good chunk of the regular season.
“Zach is one of only three seniors on this team and he’s a big loss,” Guarnieri said. “We have 11 juniors who are getting their first chance to play varsity baseball. They lost a season last year to COVID and couldn’t even compete in the B League last summer. So this is a very young team, but I know they have talent.
“My son (first baseman Mike Guarnieri Jr.) is one of those juniors and I’ve been coaching that class since they were maybe 6-years-old. But this will be an eye-opening experience for most of them and we’ll see how quickly they can make the adjustment to varsity.”
The Red Dragons lost to Fitch 9-2 on March 27, then to South Range 6-0 on Monday and 17-7 on Tuesday.
“The Fitch game was 5-1 in the fifth and we were competing and they’re a good team,” coach Guarnieri said. “In the 6-0 loss to South Range, it was 1-0 in the fifth against a very solid pitcher before we made some errors. The next day, we trailed (South Range) 5-0 early and came back to lead 7-5 before completely coming apart with defensive miscues. So, we learned how to win today.”
Coach Guarnieri liked what he saw against Edgewood.
“I think we were pushing a bit and we were up 3-0 and it should’ve been much more, but we didn’t come up with the timely, clutch hits,” he said. “We left the bases loaded one inning and had a guy thrown out at the plate in another inning.
“But Matt Kozak did a great job pitching us out of a tough situation early in the game until we finally got some clutch hits and relaxed a bit. It seemed like it was contagious once we started and we were able to put up a nice crooked number in the fifth.”
Niles took a 1-0 lead in the first when junior Zack Masik singled and was sacrificed to second by Kolton Christopher. Fisher was hit by a pitch. With runners on second and third, Andrew Huffman laced a single to left, but Fisher was thrown out at the plate on the relay.
Edgewood (0-3) had runners on second and third in the top of the third with nobody out, after a Niles error and a double from Zack Vencill. But Kozak struck out the next batter and got an infield pop-up and a fly out to escape the jam.
Kozak struck out five and walked four before leaving after tossing 92 pitches in 6 1/3 innings.
Niles loaded the bases in the bottom of the third with nobody out on an error, a walk and Fisher’s bloop single to left. Huffman hit a sacrifice fly to center field and Guarnieri Jr. added an RBI double. The Dragons eventually left the bases loaded.
“We’ve struggled with hitting in the clutch, but it’s early yet,” coach Guarnieri said. “That’s what made us so happy with the fifth inning. We seemed to string it together then.”
Fisher singled to begin the fifth. With one out, Chase Sudzina reached on an error and Guarnieri Jr. walked to load the bases. Jordan Streamo ripped an RBI single to left and Caleb Lauer got an RBI on a fielder’s choice to make it 5-0. Kozak followed with a long two-run double to right field and Macik was hit by a pitch. Christopher tacked on the final runs by smashing a two-run double to left.
Freshman pitcher Kris Hrosar got the only two batters he faced to look at called third strikes to end the game.
“This is a great feeling to break through for a win because I feel we needed this,” coach Guarnieri said. “Most other teams canceled games today, but we want to play as much as we can, continue to learn and improve.”
The Red Dragons added a game for today and will play at Grand Valley this afternoon.