Going off pitch counts in the first two innings, Gilmour Academy was in big trouble during the Lancers’ Division II state championship game against Dayton Chaminade Julienne on Sunday evening at Canal Park in Akron.
The defending Division II champion and state No. 1-ranked Eagles (27-2) had 6-foot-4 junior southpaw Sebastian Gongora on the hill with an 85-mph fastball and an 8-0 record this season. He started the game six up, six down, on just 18 pitches with three strikeouts.
The coaches poll No. 10-ranked Gilmour sluggers (25-7), who were making their program’s first appearance on the state title stage, had 6-foot-4 junior righty Joey Hollis on the mound with a 7-0 record this season. He mustered four strikeouts in the first two innings but also walked two batters and surrendered a run on 46 pitches.
With the state semifinals the previous day, Gongora and Hollis were their teams’ No. 2 pitchers, and both guys entered the state championship with unbeaten records on the mound this season.
“We knew coming in that they really hung their hats on their two guys, and their first guy threw a great game yesterday,” said Gilmour 10th-year head coach Jay Fowler, a 2000 graduate of the Lancers’ baseball program.
“We knew we were going to have our hands full with this guy,” he said of Gongora. “And his length, it wasn’t so much his speed, I don’t think, but his length and his delivery, just getting quick to the plate, I think, threw us off a little bit early on, but you saw we started to adjust at the end. It was just a little too late.”
Gilmour’s Hollis settled in and began to dominate after those first two innings. He managed to last 6 2/3 innings on 106 pitches, surrendering six hits and three walks while striking out five Eagle batters. When he exited the mound with two outs in the top of the seventh and Chaminade Julienne runners on first and second, Gilmour trailed, 2-1.
After a walk loaded the bases, Eagle three-hole senior Nick Wissman connected on a two-RBI single to left against Gilmour junior reliever Matt Christopher to provide Chaminade Julienne a 4-1 upper hand and an eventual 4-2 victory.
“The one thing that I just said to the boys right there was, I’m not a real emotional guy,” Fowler said. “I try to keep it as steady as possible. In all my years of being in baseball, whether it was playing in college, in high school, in Little League even, you know, in 34 years of being a part of this sport, and, by far, no question, this is the best team I’ve ever been a part of.
“And it has nothing to do with the wins or the championships or the records or anything like that. It’s a group of guys that I’m just so proud of that came together and cared for each other and loved one another and have a great time together. And they built a culture for Gilmour baseball that I think is going to extend for many generations.”
In 92 years of Ohio High School Athletic Association state baseball tournaments, the Eagles became the ninth program to win back-to-back titles under outgoing 10th-year head coach Mike Barhorst. Not to mention, Chaminade Julienne was the 2017 state runner-up, meaning it was the Eagles’ third straight trip to the title game on Sunday.
Although Gilmour had a program-best 18-game win streak this year, the Lancers lost four straight games to end the regular season, before winning six straight playoff games to reach the championship. Chaminade Julienne was riding a 22-game win streak into Sunday’s title clash.
“I think we’re definitely the underdog in that situation, knowing that they’re the returning state champion and were in the state final game the prior year as well,” Fowler said. “You know, anytime there’s that situation, I think we’re the underdogs. Our mindset didn’t change though.
“We knew all year long that what we have to do is what we do and not worrying too much about what the other team did. You know, their pitcher did a nice job of keeping us off-balance. We had a lot of pop-offs early on, and it wasn’t until late in the game that we started to get to them, and it was just too late.”
Chaminade Julienne took that 1-0 lead in the top of the first, when sophomore leadoff AJ Solomon walked aboard on a full count, stole second base and took third on a passed ball on the same pitch, and Wissman knocked him home on a ground-out to second baseman Christopher.
The Eagles struck again in the top of the third, when senior two-hole hitter Andrew Simones connected on a triple to the left-field corner and Wissman knocked him home on a single up the gut for a 2-0 upper hand.
But Gilmour’s Hollis took over from there, retiring 11 of the next 12 Eagle batters he faced to keep the Lancers in striking distance.
“He’s a confidence guy,” Fowler said of Hollis. “Once he gets going a little bit, he’s tough to knock off. So, he struggled a little bit, but, as soon as he gets an out or one pitch goes his way, all of the sudden it clicks, and then you know he’s locked in. And we saw, after that second inning, he started to really lock in on them, and Joe’s big thing is to pitch to contact, and he did a really nice job of that.”
A three-sport athlete, Hollis also plays varsity golf, was in the Lancers’ starting lineup during their Division III state runner-up finish in 2017 and was a member of Gilmour’s varsity basketball team that went 17-6 this past season.
He did not play summer baseball last year and did not start focusing on baseball until the end of February, Fowler said.
“Joey Hollis is a great story,” the coach said. “He had this mentality that he was just going to work hard to be one of our best players. That’s where his mind was. He wasn’t going to let anything happen except work harder than anybody else. And I’m so proud of the steps that he made as a baseball player. I hope today shows.”
Gilmour’s lone hit during the first time around the order was a single to right by sophomore eight-hole hitter Vinny Bandwen with one out in the bottom of the third. He battled through an eight-pitch at-bat, fouling off two deliveries, to get aboard.
Junior nine-hole hitter Ty Plucinsky hit a three-one ground-out to move Bandwen over to second, and, as Gongora tagged the bag, he thought about attempting a throw to second base, but the ball came flying out of his mitt to allow Bandwen to take third base. Bandwen then scored on a balk to cut the Lancers’ deficit, 2-1.
“We’ve had faith in one through nine all year,” Fowler said. “Sometimes the averages rise or look a little bit low, but we know what they do in practice every day, and it’s just a matter of breaking out. And Vinny’s got a bright future, and he did a great job there battling in that at-bat and gave us a little life there and brought it within 2-1 at that point.”
After Bandwen’s hit, Gongora seated the next 10 Lancer batters in order, and it wasn’t until the third time around the order when leadoff Christopher got Gilmour’s second hit of the game on a single to left with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. Christopher advanced to second on a fielding error in left, but he was left stranded.
Then, after Chaminade Julienne added two more runs to take the 4-1 lead with two outs in the top of the seventh, Gilmour didn’t go down quietly. After all, the Lancers previously overcame a 4-1 deficit to Toledo St. Francis de Sales with a seventh-inning rally, as well as a 7-0 deficit to St. Vincent-St. Mary with 13 unanswered runs in the fifth and sixth earlier this season.
Sophomore Ben DeMell and senior cleanup Nick Christopher led off the final inning against Chaminade Julienne with back-to-back singles to center and through the three-four gap to put runners on the corners and the game-tying run in the batter’s box with no outs Sunday.
Junior five-hole hitter Garrett Olsen hit into a six-four-three double play with DeMell getting home to cut the deficit, 4-2, before junior designated hitter Marco Costabile was robbed on a lineout to center field to end the game.
Finishing their program’s best campaign at 25-7, the Lancers graduate senior starters Jack Krebs, the two-hole hitter out of right field, and the elder Christopher at catcher. Christopher finished his varsity career with school records of 16 doubles this season and 29 doubles for his career, besting 2015 graduate Ethan Pawlak’s marks.
Although, non-starting seniors like Brandon Novak and Pat Kelley motored the program to where it needed to go, Fowler said.
The Lancers will return six juniors and two sophomores from their starting lineup.
“I think the big thing is that it’s like an open wound right now,” Fowler said. “So, those guys, it’s one of those things where it burns, and it should, and it hurts, and I hope that that’s the driving force as they move forward into their offseason.
“So, maybe that’s 10 extra minutes in the weight room a day or a couple extra ground balls or fly balls or extra swings off the tee. I know those guys seeing the success that we had this year, I think that they’re going to put the time in, and, hopefully, we get a chance to make a return trip to Akron next year.”