Thursday, June 6th, 2024

Fort prepares for state trip

Tournament turnaround gives Indians first state berth since 2016

By Tom Haines
Photo from The Daily Standard Archives

Fort Recovery's Alex Gaerke and Rex Leverette fist-bump during the Division IV sectional opener against Waynesfield-Goshen on May 14. The Indians have gone from 9-11 at the start of the tournament to 15-12 heading into the state semifinals on Saturday.

Early in the season, Fort Recovery was slumping at the plate for the second straight year and struggling on defense, while its ace pitcher had trouble locating his curveball and its No. 2 pitcher was limited to the lineup with a knee injury.
A few weeks later, the Indians are hitting the ball hard, playing clean defense and getting the stellar pitching they expected, and the result is a trip to the Division IV state semifinals for the first time since 2016 for a matchup with Hillsdale on Saturday.
"We had pretty high expectations," coach Kevin Eyink said. "We thought this could be a pretty good group. The regular season didn't quite go the way we wanted - it was up and down, and we had some fielding mistakes early on - but coming in, we thought we had a good group coming back, and good pitching. We thought we'd have a chance to have a pretty good team."
Last year, Eyink's second season ended at 13-13 in the sectional final when New Bremen's Nolan Kuenning no-hit the Indians.
It was the latest example of a team that struggled to hit all season, and though there were some bright spots early this year - such as a 10-3 win over Shawnee on April 15 - they scored four or fewer runs in 15 of their first 23 games, going 5-10 in those contests.
Fort Recovery was 9-11 heading into the postseason and has won six of seven, the lone loss coming in a non-conference tournament tuneup with Coldwater. After fairly close wins over Waynesfield-Goshen (5-2) and Crestview (2-1) in the sectional, the Indians turned up the offense in the district, beating Parkway 12-8 on a late rally before coming back and beating Marion Local 11-3 to capture their first district title since 2016 in a game that Eyink called their best all-around showing all year.
In the regional, Fort Recovery beat Montpelier 14-4 before coming back with a 5-1 win over Leipsic to punch the ticket to Akron.
"The ability to score more runs, that makes the game so much easier for your pitchers and your defense," Eyink said. "They don't have that pressure on them, that every play has got to be perfect."
The team's collective batting still seems light, posting a .230 batting average, but Eyink said the Indians found a lineup that worked at the beginning of the tournament, and the improvement has shown: in the six postseason games, the Indians have hit .270.
Reece Wendel is the lone hitter with an average above .300, coming in at .301. Troy Homan is batting .275 with 21 runs scored. Designated hitter Caden Homan leads the team with 23 RBI to go with a .243 average.
"Our approach is contact: taking good at-bats, seeing lots of pitches, and making good contact," Eyink said of his team's strengths at the plate. "We do have some guys that have hit some gaps and had some doubles, but I wouldn't say power. Really, we've had timely hits in the postseason here all through the lineup, but especially that top half of the lineup: Troy, Reece (Wendel), Caden Homan, Alex Gaerke, Caden Grisez. They've done a really nice job of getting the ball in play."
Photo from The Daily Standard Archives

Fort Recovery ace Alex Dues is scheduled to face Hillsdale Saturday.

Ace Alex Dues, who will pitch at Marietta College next season, has a 7-3 record and 2.18 ERA in 67 1/3 innings. He has 66 strikeouts against 28 walks and relies on multiple off-speed pitches to keep hitters off balance.
Eyink said Dues' curveball came around in late April against St. Henry, and since then he's been the top-line pitcher the Indians needed while their lineup found its footing. Dues is scheduled to get the ball against Hillsdale Saturday.
"I think he's just been getting better since then," Eyink said. "He'll be ready here this weekend."
While Dues has been the ace of the rotation, Caden Grisez's return to pitching has been key. A knee injury kept him off the mound and limited him to third base for more than a month, but Grisez made his return to throwing the week of districts and turned in two stellar outings.
He got the wins in the district final and regional final, beating Marion Local and Leipsic, to move his record to 3-0 with a 1.97 ERA in 21 1/3 innings.
"He's performed at the same level or even better than what he was before," Eyink said. "I don't know, that four weeks gave him time to rest and recuperate and be ready to get outs. But I'd say he's at the same level he left off at or even better right now."
After struggling with errors early in the year, the Indians have only had two hiccups in the tournament.
The first came against Parkway, as errors helped the Panthers take a 3-0 lead in the third inning. Against Montpelier in the regional semifinals, they committed three errors in two innings as Montpelier took a 3-2 lead.
"I think being outside more consistently, being on the field, some of that has cleaned itself up," Eyink said. "We still have made some errors - that Parkway game we had a couple errors, (Montpelier) - but they didn't pile on top of each other like they did early in the year. Then, you'd get one, then you'd get two, and all of a sudden it's three and four. We didn't get to that point."
Fort Recovery and Jeromesville Hillsdale have had somewhat similar seasons. Hillsdale had lost five of its last six before the tournament.
  Hillsdale, which finished 9-5 in Wayne County Athletic League play, lost 7-2 to Ashland on May 13. The Falcons opened tourney play with a 10-0 win over East Canton, then beat Ashland Mapleton 9-6 and Ashtabula St. John 9-6 to win the district title. After losing a non-conference game to Marengo Highland, Hillsdale won 2-1 over Lake Center Christian in the regional semifinal at Louisville High School before shutting out Warren John F. Kennedy 3-0 to reach the state final four for the first time since finishing as runner-up in 2019
The Falcons will look to Jack Fickes to take the mound in the semifinal. Fickes scattered six hits and two walks and struck out five in Hillsdale's win over Lake Center Christian. Fickes is 7-3 with a 2.83 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings. Gavin Casdorph (5-2, three saves, 2.03 ERA) pitched a five-hit shutout for the Falcons in the 3-0 regional final win over Warren JFK.
At the plate, Fickes, a first-team All-WCAL selection who plays centerfield when not pitching, leads the team with a .402 batting average with 10 doubles, 36 runs scored and 32 RBI. Owen Hoffman, starting at third base, also earned first-team All-WCAL honors. He is batting .400 with 27 RBI. Second-team WCAL selection Brock Bower is batting .378 with 25 runs scored in starting at second.  
"They're very good defensively," Eyink said. "They make the routine plays, field lots of ground balls, don't make mistakes. Their pitchers throw strikes. I think in the games that we watched, their pitchers finished the game with 70, 80 pitches, so you know they're throwing lots of strikes."
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Fort Recovery planned an intra-squad scrimmage for Wednesday before two normal practices Thursday and Friday.
Eyink said they hadn't discussed anything different about playing in the state tournament.
"We're trying to keep practice pretty similar to what we've been doing," he said. "Trying to stay focused on the next game, the task at hand, and keep things pretty normal. We haven't talked about anything special or anything to expect, other than, 'Here's our opponent, here's what we need to try to do,' and stay focused on that."
Per the OHSAA, a win Saturday would give Eyink his 100th win, after he spent five years coaching at Indian Lake before joining Fort Recovery for nine years as an assistant. He has won 41 games in his first three years at the helm for the Indians.
First pitch against Hillsdale is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday at Canal Park in Akron, with the winner facing the 7 p.m. winner of Russia and Berlin Hiland at 7 p.m. Sunday.

State Baseball:
Division II
Parma Padua Franciscan vs. Hamilton Badin, Friday, 10 a.m.
Indian Creek vs. Beloit West Branch, Friday, 1 p.m.
Championship: Sunday, 10 a.m.
Division I
Twinsburg vs. Olentangy Berlin, Friday, 4 p.m.
Perrysburg vs. Mason, Friday, June 7, 7 p.m.
Championship: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Division III
Minford vs. Lake, Saturday, 10 a.m.
Heath vs. Waynedale, Saturday, 1 p.m.
Championship: Sunday, 4 p.m.
Division IV
Fort Recovery vs. Jeromesville Hillsdale, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Berlin Hiland vs. Russia, Saturday, 7 p.m.
Championship: Sunday, 7 p.m.
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