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May 31—The Division I tournament aspirations of the Clay baseball team ended earlier than expected last Thursday, but the Eagles received some consolation Monday by concluding their season on a high note.

Behind the hitting of Jackson Kennedy plus some solid pitching by committee, Clay took a 6-2 Three Rivers Athletic Conference victory over Central Catholic at Mercy Field to claim a share of the conference title with St. John’s Jesuit.

The Eagles thus finish with the exact same record (22-6 overall, 12-2 TRAC) that the co-champion Titans have as St. John’s prepares for Thursday’s 5 p.m. D-I regional semifinals.

St. John’s will face Northern Lakes League member Bowling Green (18-11, 9-5) at Bowling Green State University’s Steller Field.

“It’s disappointing, for sure, for your seniors, and when you’re playing well, to run into a good team like Findlay,” Clay coach Jim Phillips said. “Findlay’s a good team and deserves all the credit, but we had aspirations of going far in the tournament after having a good season like this.”

Clay’s tourney run ended last Thursday in a 4-3 D-I district semifinal loss to fellow TRAC member Findlay at Carter Park. Findlay then lost to BG, 3-2 in eight innings there in a district final played Sunday.

“Kudos to the team,” Phillips said. “It would be easy to pack it in after a loss like that and then have to play against a really good team like Central, that’s going to a regional.

“It says a lot about this club to not mail it in and to be ready to play. They took advantage of the opportunity that was in front of them. I’m really happy for them.”

Clay capitalized on some early control problems experienced by Central starting pitcher Cullen LaBeau, who walked the game’s first three batters — Ethan Spears, Logan Heintschel, and Spencer Fortier.

Kennedy, Clay’s junior cleanup hitter, then delivered a three-run double that one-hopped the fence in left field and gave the Eagles a quick 3-0 lead.

In the third, Clay upped its lead to 4-0.

Heintschel led off with an opposite-field double to the corner in left, advanced on Fortier’s groundout, and scored on Kennedy’s double to left, which was a near carbon copy of his first-inning drive.

“I couldn’t have done it without the push from my teammates,” said Kennedy, who was 3-for-4. “Having a brotherhood and a relationship with all these teammates is something really good. We got it done today, and we’ll be back next year.

“It wasn’t what we wanted [the tournament loss]. It was frustration for us, but we kept our heads up and worked for it, and we earned it. You’ve always got to think about the next game, not worry about the last one.”

Clay starting pitcher Anthony Barnes yielded a third-inning run to the Irish after retiring the first two batters. He hit Jacob Homan with a pitch, walked Wilson Stopera, and gave up an RBI single to Owen Kitz to cut Clay’s lead to 4-1.

Some sloppy defensive play by the Irish in the fourth, however, enabled the Eagles to expand their lead.

After LaBeau had gotten the first two batters, he appeared to have a 1-2-3 inning secured when Clay’s Christian Mays hit an infield popup. But a pair of Central infielders had a miscommunication on who would make the catch and the ball landed safely, giving Mays a single.

That miscue proved costly when Spears then reached on an error, allowing Mays to score. Heintschel added an RBI single to left to plate Spears for a 6-1 Eagles advantage.

“It’s really all I could hope for and dream for as a kid,” said Heintschel, a senior who also played football and basketball for the Eagles. “Going to Clay, there’s not really many things that we’re the best at, and I think baseball is kind of escape from the bottom of the league. It’s just great. I love being around my teammates, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better than this.

“After that Findlay game, we were disappointed. We were wishing to make a run in the tournament, but our guys did a really good job of turning it around, coming back and staying focused today. It would have been easy to lay an egg. But, everyone had a great mentality coming in, and we got the job done.”

The Irish threatened in their half of the third, when Barnes issued two two-out walks. But Eagles reliever Trevor Jurski retired A.J. Parker on a fly to left to end the inning.

Central did touch Jurski for a run in the fifth, when Stopera hit the fence in left-center on one hop for a one-out triple, then scored on the third hit of the game by Kitz, a single to right-center.

But Jurski avoided further damage in the fifth, and Jon Marsico came on to pitch the final two innings, surrendering only a two-out ground-rule double to Stopera in the seventh, to close out Clay’s first TRAC title share.

The good news for Central (14-10, 6-8) is that it earned a Division II regional semifinal berth over the weekend at Archbold, beating Ottawa-Glandorf 10-8 in last Thursday’s district semifinals before topping perennial state power Defiance 8-5 in Saturday’s final.

The Irish, who won their first district title since making back-to-back regional trips in 1989 and 1990, will face Oberlin Firelands in a D-II regional semifinal at 5 p.m. Thursday at Bowling Green’s Carter Park.

Central coach Jeff Mielcarek, who was understandably saving his top three pitchers for regional play, is looking forward to the next step on the tournament trail.

“We’re obviously really excited about that,” Mielcarek said. “It’s been way too long, and we’re looking forward to it.

“We didn’t have a dog in the hunt [title chance] today, but you never lay down. I don’t think our kids laid down. We played St. Francis in a one-run game [3-2 loss] Sunday after the district final Saturday, and we came back today, and I thought our kids competed.”

TRAC co-champion St. John’s advanced to the D-I regionals by beating Northview 10-0 in a district semifinal at Tiffin University last Wednesday, and topping Perrysburg, 10-1, in a district final played Saturday at Defiance.

First Published May 31, 2021, 3:45pm