By Chris Chaney
The University of Cincinnati – Clermont College won the school’s second national title on Thursday, May 9 when the men’s baseball team took down host school Penn State University – Greater Allegheny in the second game of the double-elimination tournament to win the United States Collegiate Athletic Association World Series Small School Division.
“I’ve been a part of four high school teams that have lost in the state championship, so this was a blessing for me,” the Cougars head coach Jack Harbison said. “And to be around these boys is a blessing. They’re good kids and a tight-knit group. They keep me young.”
Aside from the personal significance of the victory, Harbison said that the Cougars ability to accomplish the feat in only the sixth year of the baseball program’s existence was special as well.
Despite the relatively young program, Clermont has had its share of success in the infancy of the team. The 2013 version of the Cougars were the third team to qualify for the USCAA World Series, finishing fourth and second, respectively.
A large contribution to the success and vitality of the program came earlier this year when the Cougars moved to their new home, Brian Wilson Field.
“I think that facility, Brian Wilson Field, must have some magic dust in there,” Dean Gregory Sojka said. “Some Brian Wilson and Jay Bruce must have rubbed off. We won some 20 games in a row when we started there.”
The field was a project headed up and funded by the Cincinnati Reds Community Fund with help from UC-Clermont and Batavia Township.
The student-athletes who played on that field, however, were the true magic ingredient that spurred the Cougars on to a great season.
Four individuals in particular — Steven Hendrickson (Wayne), Chris Sunderman (Glen Este), Ryan Mummert (Clermont Northeastern) and Josh Williamson (Fairfield) — were honored with All-American recognition.
The season was a tale of three parts. The Cougars got off to hot start, winning five of their first six games before going on a skid that saw their record slip to 7-7-1 (the tie came during a doubleheader that had to be called after five innings due to darkness). From that April 6 onward, the Cougars would go undefeated to close out the regular season, finishing with a 24-7-1 record.
The team’s hard work did not go unnoticed as they were near the top of the USCAA Power Rankings for the last month of the season and earned a No. 3 seed in the 10-team World Series.
“They rank the teams according to their strength of schedule and your win-loss percentage,” Harbison explained. “We were ranked third to end the season so we got invited to the tournament and were seeded third in the tournament.“
The USCAA World Series is set up as a double-elimination tournament, with losing teams being relegated to a consolation bracket, but still having an opportunity to compete for the national title.
The Cougars earned a favorable draw as the No. 3 seed, not having to face the host school (Penn State University – Greater Allegheny) or the top seed (The Apprentice School) until at least the finals of the winner’s bracket.
The Cougars beat their first-round opponent, Southern Virginia University, 6-0 behind the strength of a Josh Williamson complete game, five-hitter.
Perhaps advantageously in the second round, Clermont faced the No. 7-seeded Lindenwood-Belleville, who upset No. 2 seed Clark State Community College to advance. The Cougars pulled off a 6-3 win as both Jake Scarlato (Oak Hills) and John Kennedy (Loveland) went 3-4 from the dish with a combined two RBI and three runs scored.
The win secured Clermont a trip to the semifinals with no losses to speak of.
“We had to play a couple of tough schools, but managed to stay in the winner’s bracket,” Harbison said of the early-round games. “In the third round, we had to play the No. 1 seed (The Apprentice School) and we beat them 6-0.”
The 6-0 win also saw the emergence of right-handed pitcher Ryan Beard (Batavia). The sophomore threw seven scoreless innings, giving up six hits and striking out five batters.
At that point, the Cougars assured themselves of a championship spot with a team from the loser’s bracket needing to beat them twice to take the World Series crown away from Clermont.
“We had to wait for somebody to come out of the loser’s bracket,” Harbison recounted. “The host team, Penn State-Allegheny, came out of that. You never want to play the host team in a tournament like this. They have the fans and they’re at home sleeping in their own beds and eating their own food. It just makes it a whole lot easier for them.”
It became evident to Harbison and his team that they weren’t going to have a cake walk to the championship as they fell in the first game 8-7 in 10 innings.
“The first game is when we knew we were in a dog fight,” the coach said. “It was back-and-forth, back-and-forth.”
The Clermont pitchers got shelled a bit in the opening innings of the game, but Harbison said long reliever Joey Wahl (Batavia) came in and settled the team down and gave them a shot before giving up an unearned run in the 10th inning to seal it.
Having earned the right to lose a game, the Cougars knew they still had a shot at the title.
“There’s not much time between games and (Wahl) was loose and warm and had some life left in his arm, (so he started the game),” Harbison said. “At that point, you’re running out of pitchers, so you have to make sure to use everything you have. We felt that (Wahl) could give us a few innings at the start of the game.”
Harbison said that perhaps Wahl sat a little too long, causing him to give up three runs in the first two innings. Despite pitching a complete game the day before, Harbison gave Beard the nod once again.
“(Beard) said that his arm still felt good,” the coach said. “So much of it is chemistry and the guys feel good playing behind (Beard), he threw a perfect game earlier in the season. We went ahead and brought him in and he threw seven shutout innings for us.
Trailing 3-1 in the early going, the Cougars’ bats came alive, scoring two runs in the fifth inning and three runs in the sixth to take a 6-3 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
Milford product Mike Gastrich had a big game going 2-5 with a home run and three RBI. Kennedy went 3-4 with a run scored and Mummert went 3-5 with two doubles.
“Our defense and pitching has been our key all year,” Harbison said. “We score runs, but the big thing is that we don’t give them back. We don’t make errors. We had a brief, frank discussion between innings when (Beard) came in and I told them to relax, play their game, quit trying to do too much.”
For their efforts, Jake Scarlato, John Kennedy and Mike Gastrich were named to the All-Tournament Team and Ryan Beard was named the Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.