Tuesday, November 13, 2018 Medina 30°

High School Baseball

Commentary: Talented Highland team peaking at the right time


Coach Jay Grissom never lost faith as his Highland baseball team tried to find a rhythm, stressing this was, top to bottom, his most talented squad. The statement held weight because Grissom has mentored two players, Luke Raley and Chad Sedio, who are currently playing very well in the minor leagues.

The results simply weren’t there after a 1-5 start. A five-game winning streak was followed by losing 3-of-4, including a 10-0 beatdown by defending Division II state champion Tallmadge and a should-have-had-it 9-7 defeat to sub-.500 Copley. The moment was pivotal.

Everything finally clicked because this team has seven senior starters who are remarkably mature. The Hornets respect the game and play with childlike joy — a style that has become a staple under Grissom, equally laid-back pitching coach Mike Weyand and assistant Ben Stobbs.

As any high school baseball fan knows, most tournament runs are about peaking at the right time. Highland, which not long ago could barely win a Suburban League game let alone a district title, has done so with old-school, mistake-free ball that punishes opponents with relentless depth.

There are college-bound players, of course, in shortstop Gavin Noble (Ashland), third baseman/designated hitter Jackson Miller (Lake Erie), pitcher/first baseman Bryce Budzinski (Lake Erie), catcher Sam Zeleznik (Ohio Northern) and second baseman Billy Keller (Mount Union). Veteran first baseman Riley Fisher (Coker), who led the team in RBIs a year ago, is out with a freak knee injury.

What separates Highland from most teams is there is no easy out, beginning with leadoff man Tyler Savron (.364) and ending with right fielder Ryan Chema (.348), a late-season revelation who continues to hit the ball on the screws.

Savron, Chema, Zeleznik (.470), Noble (.405), Budzinski (.369), Miller (.313) and Ambro (.313) are above .300. Keller works deep into counts — important because of pitch-count rules — and is a brilliant defender (.947 fielding percentage), while left fielder Andrew Shaw contributed two sacrifices in a district final win over Medina and is a valuable reliever.

As for pitching, Budzinski and Ambro have been outstanding in the postseason with 24 strikeouts in 20 innings. Brenden Meikle also was productive in the opener against Kenmore-Garfield, easing fears Highland wouldn’t have the same depth without Keller, who had a breakout sophomore year (1.46 ERA in 33 innings) before narrowly avoiding Tommy John surgery last season.

Don’t forget defense, either, as Highland has remarkably only committed one error in 28 postseason innings. The opponent at 5 p.m. today at Thurman Munson Stadium in the Canton Division I Regional semifinals, Mentor (16-7), has a similar story of peaking at the right time. Despite competing in the always-tough Greater Cleveland Conference, the Cardinals had won 11 consecutive games and 14-of-15 before falling to Brunswick 10- 9 in the GCC finale. Mentor isn’t a big-hitting team but relies on pitching (2.43 ERA) led by Squire Chapman (2-3, 3.29 ERA), left-hander Justin Wilson (5- 0, 1.25) and closer Dan Zelina (8 saves), as well as defense (.944 fielding percentage). Leadoff hitter Will LaGanke (.403 batting average, .593 on-base, 27 runs, 23 stolen bases) and Riley Grieco (.431, 27 RBIs) are the bats to watch.

Despite the massive enrollment difference — the Cardinals’ OHSAA grades 9- 11 figure is 963 compared to the Hornets’ 420 — calling Highland an underdog would be a massive mistake. More than any other sport, any decent baseball team with decent pitching can make a run, and the Hornets certainly are better than decent.

The five state semifinal teams in Medina County history — 1954 Wadsworth, 1975 Buckeye, 1977 Buckeye, 1988 Brunswick and 1991 Black River — had a combined .654 winning percentage. Highland’s winning percentage right now is, drum roll, .654.

Creepy, huh?

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