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Jun. 10—If there is a consensus of opinion from the St. John's Jesuit baseball team on why the 2021 Titans advanced to the first state final four in school history, it is more about a prevailing attitude than strategy or statistics.
From 29-year-old head coach Sam Fischer and assistants Eddie Ziemke and Billy Todorowski down to all 22 players on the varsity roster, the Titans' 24-6 overall record and Three Rivers Athletic Conference co-championship (12-2) is the result of preparation and an ability to play loose and with confidence.
This philosophy came in handy last Friday and Saturday in Division I regional play at Bowling Green State University, when St. John's rallied for four runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to take a 6-3 win over Bowling Green in the semifinals, and then for three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning of its 4-3 victory over Berea-Midpark in the final.
The regional triumphs earned the Titans a D-I semifinal matchup against long-time state baseball power Cincinnati Elder (24-8) on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Canal Park in Akron.
St. John's is the first TRAC team to reach a state baseball final four, the first Toledo team to reach a state semifinal since Ottawa Hills in 2010, and the first Toledo D-I squad to get there since Start finished as state runner-up in 2005.
"We saw the talent we had," said Fischer, who was supposed have his first season guiding St. John's last year before the coronavirus pandemic canceled all spring sports.
"For our staff, our goal was to get them to play with that talent, and with enjoyment for the game. Being able to do that allows you to play loose, and when you play loose, you play better. But you also also have to find the line between playing loose and being lazy. That's a fine line. It's about growing with the game and with each other. You can talk about strategy, and how you run the bases, and your at-bats. But, I think the important thing is how much they love each other."
Cincinnati Elder, 12-time state champions and three-time runners-up, will be making its 21st state final-four appearance. Elder's last title came in 2005, and their last state berth was in 2010.
Coach Mark Thompson, an Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, recently eclipsed 600 career wins.
The Titans have been producing well in the three major components of the game — pitching, defense, and timely hitting.
St. John's senior right-hander Jacob Davis is 10-0 on the season with a 1.24 earned-run average and 70 strikeouts in 62 innings. He will pitch next year at Kalamazoo (Mich.) College.
"Going to the final four is something I've dreamed of doing since I was a freshman," Davis said. "Who would have thought we'd be in this position right now? It's unreal. No one expected us to be here, and we're here, and we're ready to go."
Reece Magers, a junior lefty, is 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 48 innings. Also an outfielder, Magers is batting .333 with 25 runs scored and 19 runs batted in.
In the field, Fischer gives credit to Ziemke for his defensive work with the players. Ziemke is a 1996 St. John's grad and was a three-sport (football, basketball, baseball) star with the Titans.
"He's done a wonderful job with our infielders," Fischer said of Ziemke, who played baseball at the University of Toledo. "He recognized the talent and worked with them. They bought into their roles, and the amount of work they put in during the offseason is showing right now."
St. John's infield consists of three players who had all played shortstop on their travel teams of past years, along with junior first baseman Carter Binkowski.
The Titans' shortstop is slick-fielding senior Nick Pett, who has made more than a handful of highlight-reel plays this season. He will play at the College of Wooster next year.
"The coaches have told us we could do anything if we put our minds to it," Pett said. "We have done that to get this far, and now all we have to do is finish."
Playing third base is junior Trey Lake, who is also the team's No. 3 pitcher. At second base is J.P. Wagner, the lone sophomore starter. Wagner is hitting .360 with 25 runs and 25 RBI.
A solid defensive outfield includes senior leadoff hitter Carson Toth in left field, senior Ryan Snyder in center, and either Magers or junior Braden DeGroff in right.
Toth is batting .456 with 41 runs, 22 RBIs, and 32 stolen bases. Snyder has batted .333 with 19 runs and 33 RBIs.
"We're trying to enjoy this as much as we can," Synder said. "We know going in that, win or lose, we have exceeded expectations. We're going to play loose as see what happens."
Perhaps the backbone of the team resides behind the plate in senior catcher Reece DiSalle, who has overcome injuries to both knees, and a 10-day coronavirus quarantine because of contact tracing to an umpire.
DiSalle, a superb defensive catcher, was a combined 5-for-6 batting in the two regional wins. On the season, he is batting .405 (17-for-42) with 20 runs and 15 RBI.
"Reece has really stepped up and gotten the big hit, and gotten our team going," Fischer said.
Another senior starter is designated hitter Andrew Pelok, who is hitting .400 (20-for-50) with 20 runs and 15 RBI.
Since falling 9-1 in a nonleague regular-season game at Bowling Green on May 17, St. John's has won eight of its last nine games, outscoring foes 82-18 during that stretch. Included in the span have been five tournament wins in which the Titans have topped opponents 42-8. They took an 11-1 sectional win over Waite, and district victories over Northview, 10-0, and Perrysburg, 10-1.
Heading to face Elder in Akron, Fischer's main concern is his Titans maintaining the season-long approach that has gotten them to state.
"In this game, you can get too high at times, and you can get too low at times, so you have to enjoy the moments when they happen, celebrate whatever they may be, and then get back to even keel," Fishcer said. "We expect to show up and compete and win. We will play for each other, and see what happens."
As for facing Elder, Fischer knows his team has a big challenge ahead.
"They have a great program, and it's well run," Fischer said. "They have a lot of talent. But, when you get to this point of the season, every team you're facing is very talented. We'll go out and show our game and see what happens."