May 30—ARCHBOLD — Trey Gray stepped to the plate with a dream scenario that unfolds in backyards across America: bases loaded, final inning, score tied.
Central Catholic and Defiance were even at four runs in the top of the seventh inning of the Division II district final at Archbold’s Memorial Park when Gray, a junior catcher, had an opportunity to send the Fighting Irish to its first regional since 1990.
His RBI single set off a four-run inning, catapulting Central Catholic past Defiance, one of Ohio’s top programs, 8-5, and bringing the district title to Cherry Street for the first time in a generation.
“I just wanted to stay relaxed,” said Gray, who was hitless in his first three at-bats. “We were facing a really good team and a really good pitcher. We knew they were going to be a tough opponent. I just took it one pitch at a time. It felt good. I was just reading and reacting.”
The Irish will play Oberlin Firelands in the regional semifinal at 5 p.m. Thursday at Bowling Green’s Carter Park.
Central’s fairytale was Defiance’s nightmare.
The fifth-ranked Bulldogs (23-7) fell behind 4-0 before they even reached the batter’s box, as the Irish scored four unearned runs in the first.
Defiance’s Bradyn Shaw threw six consecutive balls to begin the game, walking the first two batters. But Central (14-8) would have squandered the scoring chance if not for a throwing error on the potential third out.
Back-to-back singles by Bishop Vargas and Jace Sanchez increased the damage as the Irish batted around, scoring four runs on two hits and one error.
“We’re playing one of the best teams in the state, and to throw up four in the first,” said Central Catholic coach Jeff Mielcarek, eyebrows raised. “We hit the ball hard. We got one big break and, certainly, that was the difference in the game.”
However, if you can’t judge a book by its cover, don’t make declarations about a pitcher based on one inning.
Over the next five frames, Shaw struck out eight Central batters and did not allow a hit.
“He was really good,” Gray said. “He was shutting us down. He had his slider going. He was exceptional, but we found a way to pull through.”
Defiance, with close to 130 stolen bases on the season, was able to chip away at Central’s lead, thanks to patience, timely hitting, and aggressive baserunning. The Irish gave up two runs in the bottom of the first off one hit and an error. Defiance got another run in the second and fourth to tie the game, though exquisite fielding by Central on several hard-hit balls prevented the Bulldogs from taking the lead.
Defiance had that opportunity in the bottom of the six with the go-ahead run on second base, but Stopera gobbled up a ground ball and flipped it to first baseman Owen Kitz to end the threat.
“I got into a groove and trusted the guys behind me. It was great,” said Stopera, who went the distance, allowing eight hits and three earned runs, while striking out five and walking three. “I knew I had to go out there and throw strikes and have my defense behind me make plays, and we did that. And we swung the bats a little bit.”
Central entered the seventh inning with little momentum and no hits in 17 consecutive plate appearances. But the magic unfolded in the final inning, with the Irish sending nine batters to the plate, bookending an otherwise inglorious day at the ballpark.
“We’ve been in a lot of one-run games all year,” said Mielcarek, who is in the midst of his 35th season at Central. “We’ve won some. We’ve lost some. We’ve never quit playing and believing in each other. That’s what we did in the last inning. We got a break here and there and hit a couple balls hard. It’s a game of inches. We had a little luck come our way today.”
The tying run reached the plate in the bottom of the seventh before Stopera calmly got him to pop out to end the game.
The emotion was on Mielcarek’s face as Irish players and parents celebrated on the infield, tears in his eyes, cheeks reddened, and bottom lip quivering.
“It’s been a long time since we got out. I lost my dad in the last year. I’m just really proud of these guys,” Mielcarek said, trying to get the words out. “It’s awesome. I just love these guys. They work so hard. It’s great for our program. We just beat one of the best teams in the state.”
First Published May 29, 2021, 5:17pm