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COLUMBUS -- Pitching, defense and timely hitting. Those are the three baseball tenets Hiland coach Tom Gibson preaches, and the three that helped the Hawks blank Wheelersburg 2-0 in the Div. III regional championship Saturday at Frank Damian Field at Ohio Dominican University.
The Hawks improve to 30-0 with the win, as the defending Div. III state champions advanced to the state semifinals Thursday afternoon at 1 p.m. against Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (22-5) at Huntington Park in Columbus.
Mitch Massaro provided the pitching for the Hawks, limiting the hard-hitting Pirates to six singles, three of them coming in a row in the third inning. A hustling play by center fielder Derek Miller, backing up left fielder Ryan Hershberger, threw out Wheelersburg's speedy leadoff man Trey Carter, and Massaro escaped the jam by inducing a comebacker to the mound by cleanup hitter Cole Darnell.
Massaro struck out three without issuing a walk, letting his defense do the work behind him.
"I had great defense behind me," Massaro said. "I kept the ball low in the strike zone. I did a good job throwing first-pitch strikes. I said before the game, it's such a big field, that works to our advantage because Derek Miller covers so much ground out there in center field."
In the bottom of the third inning, Massaro provided the timely hitting, driving a two-out, two-strike single up the middle with the bases loaded. Catcher's interference was called on the play, which actually saved Wheelersburg a run, because Bryan Yoder who walked, who scored behind Chris Kline (hit by pitch) had to go back to third, reloading the bases.
The rule states the result of the play stands, but it is a dead ball after interference was called. Therefore, Massaro was credited with a hit, but the runner had to go back to third, and Braden Mast struck out to end the threat.
"I hate to have a run taken off the board, but we persevered," Gibson said. "Historically, after we score, we like to go back and give them a couple. This time, they focused in on defense, and it was awesome. It was another great defensive game. I'm really proud of these guys. This was a big win. I'm relieved.
"It could've gone either way. We made some plays when we had to."
The Hawks made it 2-0 in the home half of the fourth inning, as Michael Miller turned Pirates' pitcher Kaden Coleman's only walk into a run. Derek Miller sacrificed him to second, he went to third on a wild pitch, and Chris Kline brought him home with a long fly to left.
"These are two teams that pride themselves in not making mistakes and doing the little things it takes to win," Pirates coach Michael Estep said. "It was a battle to test the will of the other team, we had a couple little miscues there, and, like good teams do, they took advantage of them. It doesn't take much.
"I told these guys, they had to make the most of the opportunities they get, and we had some runners on a few times, but couldn't get that big hit," he continued. "That's just baseball."
Massaro settled into a good groove after the third inning, retiring 10 of the last 11 batters, mixing a hard fastball and some good off-speed pitches.
"My mindset throughout regionals this year has been a lot of off-speed," said Hiland catcher Bryan Yoder of the games he has called behind the plate. "I've learned catching Braden (Mast) and Mitch all these years that when they mix it up a lot, no one can touch them. We did a lot of off-speed today, and it worked."
"This is good, but we're not finished," added Massaro. "We've got two more to go."
Gibson commended his team's demeanor after winning the title and earning another trip to the state tournament. It appeared as though Hiland had just won a mid-week non-conference game.
"We've talked about it all year," Gibson said. "We don't just want to get back to state, we want to win it. This is just another stepping stone.
"These guys believe they can do it. I believe we can do it. We've just got to keep playing the way we are."