Knights target state berth

TORONTO — For the first time since 2014, the Toronto baseball began this season’s tournament not as the top seed.

Garnering the second seed instead, the Red Knights eliminated top-seeded Hiland last Monday in a Division IV district semifinal, before defeating Strasburg for the championship. Naturally, they are the highest seed remaining and quickly became the favorites.

Just don’t tell any Red Knight that.

“We’ve had more of an underdog mentality, and normally the underdog comes out on top,” junior Tristan Thomas said. “We definitely have that underdog mentality, so we’re going to every game treating everyone like they’re the top seed.”

That is what many Red Knights believe will make the difference, as they hope to reach the state tournament once again after falling short a year ago.

“Every year is a different year. One of the biggest things this year is we have a great group of kids that bought in,” head coach Brian Perkins said. “They truly root for each other, and they’re great kids. When you get that good combination of great kids who truly are friends and root for one another, that’s when teams are successful. You can have talented teams, but if you don’t have kids who are not on the same page, you’re not going to be successful.

“It’s a great recipe, and they’ve done a great job getting to this point. Hopefully, we can continue to make this run.”

The run resumes Thursday during Toronto’s regional semifinal bout with Huntington, an underdog in its own right, in Lancaster.

The Huntsmen, No. 4 seed in the Chillicothe 1 District, began after a regular-season mark of 9-14. They shut down fifth-seeded Fairfield, 5-0, to capture a sectional title. Then, they upset top-seeded Reedsville Eastern, 6-5, and second-seeded Whiteoak, 8-3.

It marked the first district in school history not just for baseball, but for any sport.

“Huntington has a veteran, excellent coach who is a student of the game. So, any time you go up against coach (Ed) Yates, you know it’s going to be a well-coached team,” Perkins said. “They scheduled up this year and played a very competitive schedule. There’s a reason why they’re going through the Division IV tournament the way they are with a .500 record. It was because he was preparing them for this run.

“We expect a very competitive game. They’re obviously hot at the right time. Any time you go up against a hot team in baseball and it’s a one-and-done, anything can happen. We’ll just prepare the best we can to face that challenge.”

Perhaps playing with the mentality Thomas mentioned will make all the difference. Maybe playing the role of the favorite put too much pressure on Toronto (23-5) in years prior.

“We had a tough road early on, playing against a lot of good teams like Hiland and Strasburg. It’s just been a tough road,” senior Nate Karaffa said. “We’ve been the underdogs the whole time, so we just keep winning and grinding it out one at a time.”

Toronto couldn’t have faced Hiland at a better time, and it chose its own path before the tourney started.

The Red Knights picked up early momentum with two home victories for its 25th straight sectional title. That was the easy part. Then came the Hawks, a team that Perkins wanted to face in the semifinal. It’s been well-documented why he did so, and it didn’t take him long to decide what path he wanted to take.

“We have a lot of respect for Hiland, and we knew going in after playing them the years before that they are a great program,” Perkins said. “We’ve been here for 25 years. We don’t just want to get to the final, and we thought that was our best path.

“We knew if we could beat Hiland, it was going to be with Nate (pitching). Fortunately, it worked out for us. With the respect we have for them, we wanted to play up in that bracket.”

Gaining an underdog mentality was a huge piece to the puzzle — and an added bonus — but Toronto also had the right mindset. Rather than celebrate just one victory, they knew they had to keep their emotions in check for the championship contest.

“We’ve been preaching to them one game at a time,” Perkins said. “The biggest thing about playing Hiland in that first game is that, after that game, our kids were really emotional and excited about that victory. They did an excellent job of maintaining that even balance and showing up the next game, knowing that we still had a game to play. That win over Hiland wasn’t going to mean anything if we couldn’t win the district championship.”

Last year’s disappointing conclusion and this season’s start taught the Red Knights how to be humble. Yes, they began this year 3-0, but a few tough defeats brought them back to Earth. A 4-3 home defeat to Weir High on March 29 and a walk-off loss to Eastern Ohio Athletic Conference’s surprise squad in United are just a few examples.

“I would say our start definitely had an impact because we didn’t start off too hot,” Thomas said. “Everyone then began gelling together, and now we’re making a run for it.”

Speaking of the EOAC (the second and final time the Red Knights won in the conference’s two years of existence), it became better than many people may realize. The Golden Eagles gave the Red Knights a run for their money, before Toronto eventually ran away with it late.

“I think a good part (of the conference) helped prepare us for this,” junior Lucas Gulczynski said. “Everybody was giving us their best every night because they knew we were the best team and really wanted to beat us. We were on top, and they wanted to knock us down.”

Add another Ohio Valley Athletic Conference title in the frame, and here the Red Knights stand. Two more victories move them to the state tournament, and four more gives them their ultimate goal. Anything that happened before sectionals no longer matters. They know what it’s like to have a chip on their shoulders because Huntington does, as well.

Which underdog will claim its yard?

“Trying to get back to the state tournament this year, we’ve had a tougher road,” senior Nick Chetock said. “Not saying in years past we haven’t, but we started off with Hiland and then Strasburg. Going forward, we hope to continue to have success.”

“We’re definitely a lot more motivated after losing early last year,” Gulczynski said. “We’ve been fired up about it all of this year. We just want to get back and bring home the title.”

PITCHING ROTATION

When Toronto began practicing for the regional tournament, Perkins was unsure who would start against Huntington. It will be either Karaffa or A.J. Clegg, who was the starter and winner over Strasburg but left early due to an ankle issue suffered while rounding second base. He’s had no setbacks since. Thomas relieved him and is another option, but his duties as starting catcher overpowers a starting nod on the mound.

“Right now, we’re not really sure which direction we’re going to go. That’s the truth,” Perkins said. “We’ll figure it out in the next day or two and line it up. (Karaffa and Clegg) have pitched in big games, and both will be ready to go.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

The Toronto/Huntington winner will face either Racine Southern or Newark Catholic, who play the earlier 2 p.m. contest on Thursday, at 5 p.m. on Friday.

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