GRANGER TWP. — After a slow start to the season, Highland’s baseball team is heating up in a hurry with a scrappy, never-say-die attitude.
Sound familiar? It should.
Coach Jay Grissom’s Hornets were a Division I state semifinalist a year ago, but most of the big names are gone. New faces in new places did not change the postseason results, however, as eighth-seeded Highland overcome a late-game defensive meltdown Wednesday to knock off No. 9 Ellet 5-4 in a Barberton Sectional semifinal.
First baseman Kyle Stoepfel was the hero, ripping a walk-off single that plated Zane Barnhart one pitch after a botched suicide squeeze with no outs.
“I’m proud of the guys for sticking with it,” said Grissom, whose team will play at top-seeded Wadsworth (17-7) today. “I give Ellet a lot of credit, man. They came and really fought. We just found a way to win an ugly baseball game, and sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do.”
The Hornets (8-9) have won seven of their last nine games after a 1-7 start, one year after winning 12-of-13 after a 7-8 start to reach Columbus. While the offense has shown mild improvement — Highland entered play hitting .216 — the pitching (1.92 ERA during stretch) and defense have improved.
The latter two aspects were outstanding for five innings against the Orangemen (10-10), as veteran Brenden Meikle had a one-hitter behind standout play from shortstop Carter Kim, second baseman Nathan Meikle and left fielder Cole Tessena.
Back-to-back errors with a 4-1 lead in the fifth changed momentum, as Ellet used a groundout and two-run double by Josh Jaeger to tie the game and chase Brenden Meikle. Ethan Good (3-1, 2.33 ERA), who ultimately won his third game in nine days, stopped the threat to keep Highland afloat.
That set the stage for .154 hitter Justin Barr, .161 hitter Zane Barnhart and .176 hitter Stoepfel — Nos. 7, 8 and 9 in the order — to begin the seventh. Barr led off with a single and Barnhart walked. When ball four to the latter deflected off the dirt and squarely into the mask of catcher Mason Lehman, who fell motionless to the dirt but eventually walked off the field under his own power, Barr went to third and Barnhart took second.
A 0-1 suicide squeeze failed when reliever Andy McClelland’s pitch sailed near Stoepfel’s shoulders. Barr was tagged out at home, but Stoepfel smacked a low fastball between third and short for the game-winner.
“It was adjust, find your stance and go get the ball,” Stoepfel said. “Just get the ball down somewhere so we can score. (After the failed suicide squeeze) I was like, ‘Let’s move on and get the next pitch.’”
Early on, quality at-bats put Highland in position for a blowout, as Ellet starter Jack Tupta began with inning pitch totals of 29, 13 and 34.
Lake Erie recruit Tyler Savron led off the first with a double and scored after a wild pitch and passed ball, and Brenden Meikle needed only 23 pitches and a 6-4-3 double play to face the minimum through three innings.
Savron again ignited the offense in the third with a leadoff double and scored on a Kim single. A Nathan Meikle walk and Barr hit by pitch on consecutive deliveries made the score 4-0, giving Brenden Meikle the needed cushion to keep firing low strikes.
The two errors on the first four pitches of the sixth stopped those plans, but Highland regrouped to give Grissom his 99th career victory.
“We’re coming together as a team,” Stoepfel said. “We’re focusing on the little things instead of playing timid.”
Highland 5, Ellet 4
Barberton Division I Sectional Semifinal
ELLET 000 013 0 — 4 4 1
HIGHLAND 103 000 1 — 5 7 2
One out when winning run scored. WP — Ethan Good (3-1) 1⅓ innings, 0 runs, hit, 0 walks, strikeout. LP — Andy McClelland ⅓ inning, 1 run, 1 earned, 2 hits, 0 walks, 0 strikeouts. Ellet (10-10) — Josh Jaeger single, double, 2 RBIs, run. Highland (8-9) — Tyler Savron 2 doubles, 2 runs; Carson Holowecky 2 singles.