Rootstown turns in gritty performance in district championship game loss to Ursuline

Rootstown sophomore pitcher Austin Biggin winds up on the mound during a recent game.
Rootstown sophomore pitcher Austin Biggin winds up on the mound during a recent game.

STRUTHERS — The Rovers spent as long as they could at Bob Cene Park.

They extended at-bats.

They gritted their way through long innings in the field.

Thanks to their heart and their refusal to give in, they played deep into a summerlike evening in Struthers.

Likely needing a near-perfect game to get by No. 4 Ursuline, No. 6 Rootstown didn't quite achieve that in an 8-2 loss in Wednesday's Division III Struthers district championship game. Six walks and five errors were hard to overcome, and with the Rovers still within 4-2, Irish first baseman Andrew Kirila's two-RBI chopper up the middle in the bottom of the fourth was a near-fatal blow.

"What a difference 48 hours makes," Rootstown coach Keith Waesch said. "We had our best game of the year on Monday, and I don't think we played poorly tonight, but unfortunately, we did not field like we fielded Monday, we didn't hit like we hit on Monday and we didn't pitch quite as well as we pitched on Monday, and at this time of year, you've got to do all those things pretty well in order to beat good baseball teams in the district finals."

Still, the Rovers remained on that field as long as they could, working long at-bats against hard-throwing Irish pitchers Brady Shannon (3⅓ IP, 2 R, H, 6 K) and Tom Groner (3⅔ IP, 0 R, 3 H, 3 K) and relying on gritty pitching to go seven.

With the Irish threatening a no-hitter, then a run-rule victory, the Rovers refused to let either happen, as three Rootstown pitchers — Blake Bower, Jake Cultrona and Austin Biggin, who had tossed maybe five to 10 varsity innings combined prior to this season — battled valiantly and the offense got going in the fourth.

"I told our kids the fight, the grit, continuing to fight back on the baseball field is what makes me proud," Waesch said. "We've faced a lot of adversity this season, and to be standing right back where we were last year in the district finals is quite an accomplishment for this group of kids in our program. I'm extremely proud of the way they've played given all the circumstances and all the adversity that we've dealt with this season. It's a real tribute to those seniors and their ability to continue to lead this program in the right direction."

Biggin, just a sophomore, entered the game with the bases loaded and no outs in a 4-2 game in the fourth.

He nearly got the Rovers out of the jam unscathed, striking out the first two batters he faced before Kirila's chopper up the middle.

Even then, the sophomore battled to get out of the frame and allowed a single run in three innings of work.

"Coming in with the bases loaded definitely put some pressure on me but I like those situations," Biggin said. "I feel like it helps me improve as a pitcher."

Meanwhile, in the field, the Rovers went from early errors to late web gems, including a diving catch in right field by Biggin and a spectacular catch by center fielder Donovan Birkett as he raced back to the warning track.

"My wide receiver skills kicked in," Birkett said. "I tracked that ball down and I jumped up and caught it. It's funny. I was running back and Brandan [Nicholas] was like, 'Were you close to the wall?' I don't know. I guess I was pretty close, but it was a good feeling."

That they pushed Wednesday's district title game well beyond two hours was no surprise given Rootstown's fight throughout the season. The Rovers made the most of a campaign that began with terrible news — Nicholas' season-ending injury in a basketball game — and soon included equally bad news — as ace Mason Bartholomy could no longer pitch due to an arm injury.

Rootstown recovered valiantly, with hurler Nathan Galambos stepping into Bartholomy's shoes and picking up big wins over Garfield and Cardinal Mooney to get the Rovers into the district title game for the second straight season. Once in that game, Galambos could no longer pitch, having just thrown five innings Monday, but Bower, Cultrona and Biggin fought their way through six Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Bartholomy, unable to pitch, managed to break up Shannon's no-hitter in the top of the fourth by pulling a line drive to right to bring home the Rovers' first run of the game.

"I was just happy that I hit the ball the way I did," Bartholomy said. "I hit that ball solid."

Later in the frame, Galambos dropped a bloop base hit into right to bring home another run.

Their lead down to a run, the Irish immediately bounced back with a four-run frame.

Just as they didn't back down when behind 3-0, the Rovers didn't give in trailing 7-2.

And in the aftermath, having pushed the game well beyond two hours, Rootstown still lingered at Bob Cene Park as Waesch went around the postgame huddle with personal remarks about every single player around him.

Their knees surely ached as a number of the players gamely squatted throughout Waesch's lengthy remarks.

Their hearts, however, were full.

"People coming in to help helped us a lot this year," Bartholomy said. "I didn't think we would get this far, but this group proved me wrong."

This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Rootstown Rovers baseball shows no quit in district title game loss