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Paul Boggs: Falcons ready to soar in Akron

Jun. 7—Previous

Minford senior Carson Cronin (31)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

The Minford High School baseball club following their 11-4 victory over Barnesville in the Division III Region 11 semifinals at Ohio Dominican University.

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Minford senior Grant Wheeler (13)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Minford senior pitcher Cam Thacker (33)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Minford senior Carson Cronin (31)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

The Minford High School baseball club following their 11-4 victory over Barnesville in the Division III Region 11 semifinals at Ohio Dominican University.

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Minford senior Grant Wheeler (13)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Minford senior pitcher Cam Thacker (33)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Minford senior Carson Cronin (31)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

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The Minford High School baseball club following their 11-4 victory over Barnesville in the Division III Region 11 semifinals at Ohio Dominican University.

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

MINFORD — Hey Minford Falcon faithful.

How does breakfast in Akron sound bright and early this weekend?

Or better yet, what about a main course say Sunday dinner time — all plated in gold?

As in the Division III baseball state championship trophy.

No doubt, Minford is aiming to make it an entire weekend in Northeast Ohio —specifically the Rubber City, and at the home of the Rubberducks.

That's because the 23-6 Falcons, starting Saturday morning at 10 a.m., will be competing in their second all-time state baseball tournament —as they face the Lake Flyers for the first Division III semifinal inside Akron's Canal Park.

Should it triumph on Saturday, Minford returns for Sunday's state championship tilt (at 4 p.m.) —between either returning state semifinalist Heath, or the two-time defending Division III state champion Waynedale.

The Falcons first made the state tournament in 2018 —and since then were Region 11 runners-up twice (2019 and 2021), regional semifinalists once (2022), and Southeast District Division III runner-up last season.

Of course, the entire 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus threat.

Minford is the first Scioto County —and also Southern Ohio Conference —club to reach the state tournament in three years, when Valley did it in Division IV.

During their final practice on Thursday at 'The Falcons' Nest', the Falcons —specifically seniors Grant Wheeler and Cam Thacker and second-year head coach Eli Daniels —spoke about rallying past Portsmouth for the regional title, and what the past week has indeed been like.

Minford had four practices on its home field this past week, including Tuesday's and Thursday's at 10 a.m. —to simulate conditions and start time on Saturday.

"It's been great. I think everybody had a great time winning the regional. Portsmouth is a very good team and played a very good game. Coming home after that game was great. Our whole community showed up to welcome us home. But this week, we've looked ahead to this weekend. We're putting in the work right now and we've got to work hard to better ourselves to have a better chance at winning this (state championship)," said Wheeler. "We enjoyed it last weekend, now we're locking in on this weekend. We recognize we have a chance at this, and we're not just here to be here. We're working hard and I like how our practices have gone."

"It's been hectic to say the least. Winning that game last Friday against Portsmouth was unbelievable. The kids had a gutsy performance the whole game. Being down 5-1 and then coming back to win...I can't say enough about them and I'm super-proud of them. Personally, it's one of the better feelings I've had in sports," added Daniels. "The joy for the kids I have, they are a hard-working group of kids that deserve everything they've got."

Thacker, the right-hander and expected starting pitcher against Lake on Saturday, concurred.

Minford senior pitcher Cam Thacker (33)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

"Everybody seems to have a good mentality already for coming into this week. We're all focused," he said.

Minford and aforementioned Valley face each other twice in SOC play, as the Falcons truly believe their regular-season schedule surely prepared them for tournament competition.

After all, they twice played Wheelersburg (No. 1 seed and SOC III champion) and Portsmouth (No. 3 seed and Ohio Valley Conference champion) —two of the top three seeds in the Southeast District tournament, and which they defeated in the district (Wheelersburg) and regional (Portsmouth) finals respectively.

Then, consider in the SOC III along with Wheelersburg the likes of Waverly — which was the Division II Region 7 runner-up — and Valley, Division IV stronghold South Webster, and improved West.

Plus Portsmouth, Scioto Valley Conference champion Zane Trace, and even Fairland right before the district tournament took place.

The Dragons were the third Southeast District squad for the Region 11 tourney —along with East District champion Barnesville.

"The SOC was very tough. We had very good pitching in the SOC. That prepared us. In order to get better, you have to compete. Pretty much every SOC team was honestly good. Then after that, all of those non-league games made us compete even more," said Wheeler. "That competition is what made us better and got us ready for this moment now."

Not only playing that competition, but battling back against it.

Wheelersburg swept Minford in the regular-season SOC III campaign, but exacted an immense measure of revenge against the Pirates —defeating them 3-1 for the district championship.

Thacker thought that's where the Falcons' flight took serious shape.

After all, they were the six seed in the Southeast District Division III bracket.

"Once we beat 'Burg, played them that third time and we beat them, it was like a gate-opener. There were a lot of people doubting us big time before that game. I heard it all the time, people saying were were going to lose again and everything," said Thacker.

But the Falcons upset the Pirates —a satisfying district championship victory to say the least.

"It was great. To be honest, they are a very, very good team. We were fortunate to be on the winning side of that game," said Wheeler. "After that game, I really felt like we had a very good chance against any teams we played."

"Our district win over Wheelersburg just jump-started everything. It gave us all the confidence that we needed," beamed Daniels. "These guys have just been running with it since."

In the two regional tournament bouts, the Falcons fell behind Barnesville 4-0 —and 5-1 against Portsmouth.

Minford muscled for the final 11 runs against the Shamrocks (11-4), and the final five markers against the Trojans (6-5).

Call them the comeback Falcons, but not once did they — in particular the seven seniors (Wheeler, Thacker, Mason Book, Carson Cronin, Rhyan Queen, Kyle Laxton and Isaac Porter) — ever utter the word "die".

"If anything, it made the boys mad. Dad (Minford assistant coach Brent Daniels) and I didn't have to say a word to them. The seniors came in and did what seniors are supposed to do. They got everybody fired up and ready to go and the rest is history," raved Daniels. "I can't say enough about our seven seniors. They've done a fantastic job leading this team this far."

Truth is, these seniors — even as freshmen three years ago and sophomores two years back — have played in multiple and meaningful district and regional level contests.

In fact, Saturday's showdown with Lake will be the 14th postseason game for the senior class —at the district and regional and now state stages.

"These seniors and juniors are just accustomed to winning," said Daniels. "That's all they know. District championships are all fine and dandy for us, but with these guys, we're starting to expect regional games."

"A lot of us have got grit," said Thacker. "None of us got down every time we got down. We all just tried to worked back up."

"We've done it before, and we can do it again," added Wheeler, the Mount Vernon Nazarene University commit, and who gained the regional championship pitching save. "That's our mentality and we're not going to panic. Our team strengths I feel are pitching, defense and just literal toughness. No matter what happens, we're going to out-tough you and use our grit and beat teams. Out of my four years of high school, this would be the year I would not have picked us for going as far as we have. But that's a testament to our team and our team's toughness. Not letting anything get to us. The regular season losses, we didn't care. Once the tournament started, we're just playing our ball."

Minford senior Grant Wheeler (13)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Thacker — who significantly stepped into the Falcons' ace role when Ty Borland suffered an elbow injury against Wheelersburg on April 1 — takes the ball on the Minford mound against Lake, and is 10-2 on the season.

The Flyers, making their first state tournament trip since 2001 and third all-time, turned away Coldwater 6-2 in that regional championship game.

The Falcons face most likely junior Drew Tajblik —a University of Toledo commit who has the school record 11 pitching wins in a single season.

He is also the Flyers' leading hitter at .375, and stole a school record 34 bases before Saturday.

Sophomore catcher Gavin Kohlhoffer is batting .350 with 25 stolen bases, while Jay Blazevich carries a .340 average with 26 steals.

"They are pretty good hitters, but I'm just going to try and do my thing and make them ground out and fly out, whatever I can to keep their run damage as minimal as possible," said Thacker.

"They can run too. They are pretty fast," added Wheeler. "They have three guys with 25 or more stolen bases."

For Heath, it has University of Findlay commit Hayden Woodward —a first baseman and pitcher, who is among the senior starters on a squad with just a pair of juniors.

The Bulldogs are a two-time state champion in 2002 and 2007, while Waynedale is the two-time defending Division III state champ.

"Every team will be a challenge no matter what," said Thacker. "We just have to fight and have a good mentality about it."

Because, remember, most observers —and even the Falcons themselves —didn't believe at the outset of the season that playing in June was in the absolute offing.

"To be honest with you, I don't think any of us thought that THIS type of season was in us. We lost quite a bit of our pitching and a lot of people thought we weren't going to be very good this year. Then as it went on, we all started developing and getting better," said Thacker. "Our approaches, our mentalities and everything got better as we started winning."

And, truth be told, Minford has just as much chance to capture the state championship as its trio of competitors.

"It's just another game. Same field, same game. Nothing changes, the teams are just better," said Daniels. "I'm excited for the challenge for these boys. They're pumped up for it and I'm pumped up for it. We're here to play Falcon baseball. Whoever wins this Division III championship is going to earn it. It's not going to be any luck in it. They're going to earn it. We're going to play our game, and wherever the cards fall, they fall. I know one thing for sure, these kids are going to play hard baseball. That's one thing we will do. These kids aren't going to lay down for anything. They are going to give it everything they have. I'm more than proud of these kids. They've had a fantastic year all the way around."

Indeed, how does breakfast in Akron sound for this weekend?

"Bright and early at 10 a.m. baby!" exclaimed Thacker.

With, ultimately hopefully, Sunday dinner being served with a state title trophy.

Minford senior Carson Cronin (31)

Courtesy of Patrick Phillips of Glory Days Photography

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com, or on X @paulboggssports © 2024 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved