By Robert Fenbers
It has been a few weeks since the season ended for the Challengers and what a difference a year makes! This time last season, the Challengers were left in a complete mess, uncertain of their head coach’s future with the team. Looking to turn the page, Tri-C underwent a complete revamp of coaches, including bringing in the highly successful Evan Agona as their head coach.
“I think the first thing with the new guys and the transition is getting their trust,” Agona stated way back in spring training. He and his staff made it clear that they would be there for his players and that he wanted them to succeed. Almost immediately, players started noticing the difference in trust with the coaches. “He was really strict he pushed us hard, but he pushed us in the right ways to get victories,” said second year outfielder Brady Hoba.
Some players were upset that their season last year was such a disaster. “We couldn’t have been any worse than we were the year before,” said pitcher Connor Ryan. Ryan, like most players on the team, felt they could have been better. “No one took us seriously last year.”
This season had a different feel to it, from the beginning of fall practice through spring training and when it mattered most, the regular season. The Challengers came out swinging, ready to put the debacle of last season behind them. Opening up in Carolina as they usually do, they quickly realized they had a powerful offensive line up, behind the hot bat of second year right fielder Ben Szymczak. The Challengers took Carolina by storm winning their first five games in row. Szymczak hit a home run the first at bat of the season. “He was our steadiest guy all year and a guy that as our leadoff hitter set the tempo for each game offensively,” said Agona. Szymczak earned Player of the Week for (March 9-22) and would eventually earn All-Conference honors as well.
With a new confidence, the Challengers encountered some adversity in the form of a two game losing streak. They kept their confidence and would eventually finish up their southern road trip with a record of 6-4 as they prepared for the next few games, including their home opener against Erie Community College. They would split their next two games against Malone University JV.
The boys were glad to be home and excited for their home opener. The game would stay close until the seventh inning when the Challengers blew the game open with nine runs. Pitcher Connor Ryan also gave a solid performance with five strikeouts and only six hits allowed. This would be a theme as Ryan would go on to average almost six strikeouts per game. The Challengers would defeat Erie Community College 12-0.
Their next game, a day later would yield the same result with powerful hitting and great pitching. Lorain County Community College proved to be no match for the offensive firepower as the Challengers exploded for another nine run inning, this time in the fourth inning. They would then tack on another five runs. Pitcher Stephen Stoneman picked up his first victory after only allowing two hits in five innings. The Challengers went on to defeat Lorain County Community College 16-1.
The Challengers were thriving off of their new coaches and their overall chemistry on the field and in the dugout. They would string together two more victories against Clark State Community College and Ashland University JV, bringing their record to 11-5 as they prepared to enter conference play.
Pitching played a huge role in the success of the team, thanks in part to the focus and determination from new pitching coach Bob Merritt. Ryan was thankful for Merritt’s willingness to help him get back to where he was before undergoing two knee surgeries one in April 2014 another in October 2014. “He and Agona pushed me to get back to where I was, they knew what I was capable of. Coach played a huge role in me stepping up and having the season that I did,” said Ryan.
As conference play began, the boys continued their winning ways taking three out of four in their series against Lakeland. Pitcher Kyle Warner added to his win total by only allowing four hits and striking out four. He improved to 4-0, as the Challengers improved to 14-5 and caught the attention of the conference and a national powerhouse.
After a hard fought victory against Notre Dame JV, the Challengers would travel to nationally ranked Sinclair Community College looking to make a statement. The problem was Sinclair was the one that made the statement.
Both teams came out strong in the first inning with Sinclair taking a 5-3 lead. They would add on six more runs, as the Challengers found themselves getting overwhelmed within minutes. Kyle Warner’s perfect 4-0 record would be put in serious jeopardy. As Tri-C fought back with three more runs, Sinclair ended their hopes of victory with an eight run fifth inning. The Challengers were defeated 19-6 in the first game of the series and it looked like they would need to go back to the drawing board to beat the conference’s best.
As the second game of the series was underway, the Challengers again trailed after the first inning, this time it was 2-1. Another big inning from Sinclair brought the score up to 7-3. As the game continued, it was clear that the Challengers were playing catch up. Tom Keaney gave up nine runs as the Challengers were defeated 9-5.
The third game of the series was familiar, another early lead for Sinclair as the Challengers were stymied on offense. Trailing 5-0 after four innings, the boys were trying to get a hit, let alone a run. Sinclair pitcher Alex Anders would have none of it as he allowed only one hit. The Challengers would fall 6-0 and go on to be defeated by that score. In addition to an abysmal offense performance the defense allowed four errors.
It would seem that this moment was too big; that the Challengers were not ready to compete with the likes of Sinclair. In the series, their hitting had been lack-luster and their pitching even worse, but they refused to fold. As the fourth game began, the Challengers again found themselves trailing early, but this time they fought back. In the fourth inning trailing 2-1, the offense returned as they drove in four runs. They would take a 5-2 lead going into the seventh inning. After tacking on another four runs and withstanding a few runs from Sinclair, the Challengers would go on to win the game. The series was difficult and it was not the result that Coach Agona and the boys were looking for, but winning the last game of the series gave them confidence going forward.
The Challengers were at home their next three game against less than stellar competition. Perhaps taking out their frustrations from the previous series, the Challengers dominated all three games, defeating Malone University JV 11-2, 10-1 and Notre Dame College JV 11-5. They continued their winning streak with two conference victories over Owens Community College, but were defeated twice in a row by Owens in the third and fourth games of the series.
At the halfway point of the season, the Challengers were 21-11, having already eclipsed there win total of 12 from last season.
The Challengers would take 2 of their next three games against Walsh University JV and Baldwin Wallace JV. With a 23-12 record, they began a series against Lakeland Community College with a fairly easy 9-4 victory. They would however go on to lose their next 3 games in the series, including an ugly 14-4 loss.
After splitting a pair of games against Delta College and defeating Ashland University JV, the Challengers were 26-16 and in second place in the conference behind Sinclair as the season was winding down. The team was searching for momentum as they were preparing for another showdown with Sinclair and the playoffs.
The Challengers dominated their next series against Owens, including Ben Szymczak’s 2 RBI’s, triple and stolen base in game one. The offensive firepower was too much for Owens to handle. The Challengers had won 30 games in a season and they weren’t done. They would go on to win their next four games bringing their winning streak to 9 games as they prepared to welcome the Sinclair Tartan Pride to Mottl Field for their regular season finale.
In their final series of the season, Tri-C proved they could hang with the best of the best. The first game was a classic. After a 30 minute delay, due to a miscommunication on the start time with the umpires, the series finale was underway. The Challengers came out strong and jumped out to an early 1-0 lead going into the top of the fifth inning. Sinclair finally broke through and scored in the top of the fifth. Pitcher Connor Ryan gave the Challengers a brilliant effort as he gave up only three hits in 7 innings pitched, also tallying 6 strikeouts. The Challengers had a few costly errors, which gave Sinclair some momentum. As the two top contenders in the OCCAC went at it, this one would need to be decided in extra innings. In the top of the ninth inning with a 1-1 tie, both teams came out swinging, literally, as they drove in two runs each. Tri-C was in a dogfight and they were loving every minute of it. Coach Agona had been preparing the boys all season for these types of moments and it seemed they were finally breaking through. In the tenth inning, the Challengers found out why Sinclair has been the best team all season; Tri-C gave up the winning run in the top of the tenth. They had no answer for Sinclair in the bottom of the inning and after such a hard fought game, they were defeated 4-3.
After the marathon in game 1, both teams had about 30 minutes to prepare for the second half of their doubleheader. Tri-C had to put the heartbreaking loss behind them and focus on taking Game 2. As the game was underway, it seemed Tri-C was having a hard time forgetting about the loss. Pitcher Tom Keaney gave up two quick runs and put the Challengers in a quick 0-2 hole. The boys quickly answered back with a run of their own making it 2-1 Sinclair after the first inning. Keaney settled down after that, only allowing 3 hits all game. He wasn’t the only one getting into his groove as the Challenger’s bats came to life as they pounded Sinclair for 7 more runs in the next two innings. Heading into the fifth inning with an 8-2 lead, Tri-C was determined to finish the job. The game was an offensive showcase for Tri-C. They defended their turf. It was not just hitting, Brady Haba came up huge with two stolen bases. Even after his rough start, Keaney pitched another great performance, tallying 6 strikeouts. The Challengers had not only defeated Sinclair, they dominated them.
The next game brought a new day and a new opportunity to showcase their talent against Sinclair. With the weekend series tied at 1-1, it would be another offensive showcase for both teams. The Challengers came out on fire again, as they carried over the momentum from the previous day’s games. Compiling seven runs in the first 3 innings, the game seemed already decided. Brady Hoba’s 3 RBI’s and two triples, one each from John Izquierdo and Eric Roder capped off the offensive firepower. The dominant pitching continued as Kyle Warner held Sinclair to only 5 hits. He would give up a home run in the fourth inning to Sinclair’s Tyler Cowles. Pitching has been a focal point this season for the Challengers. Tri-C was too much for Sinclair as they defeated them for the second time in a row. After the 8-1 victory, their confidence was at an all-time high.
It was the final game of the series, which would also be the final game of the regular season. The Challengers had all the momentum and looked to take three out of four games from Sinclair, but the Tartan Pride had other ideas. Sinclair quickly struck with one run in the first inning. Tri-C answered back with two runs in the second. Daniel Sexton was on the mound for Sinclair, he went into the game with a perfect 8-0 record. His performance was key as he only allowed 4 hits. Brady Haba was able to briefly get the best of him with a homerun. As the game entered the third inning, it was blown open by an onslaught of hits by Sinclair. Challenger’s pitcher Ryan Andrzejczyk gave up six runs, making it a 7-2 game. The Challengers answered back with one run in the bottom of the third. The Tartan Pride tacked on two more in the sixth and another two in the seventh inning, capping off the blowout as Sinclair defeated the Challengers 11-3.
The Challengers finished the regular season with 36 wins, tripling their win total from last season. They defended their home field all season as they went 24-6 at home. “We like playing at home, our infielders especially love playing on the surface; we played tremendous at home,” said Agona. Hoping to build off their regular season home success, the Challengers would host the Sub-District Tournament. They welcomed Owens and Lakeland along with Vincennes University.
Tri-C opened the tournament against Vincennes University with an early 10 a.m. start time. The game was tied 2-2 after the third inning as the pressure mounted on both teams. For Challengers pitcher Conner Ryan his day most likely began earlier than most. “I had an ECON final at 7 a.m. before that,” said Ryan. Still, there were no excuses as Ryan and the Challengers hung with Vincennes, as it was 3-3 heading into the sixth inning. But then Vincennes took over the game scoring 3 runs in the sixth. They went on to defeat the Challengers 6-3.
In their elimination game, the boys from Tri-C looked to salvage their impressive season against a foe they had seen many times before, Lakeland. The game was close through four innings as the Challengers led 2-1. But similar to the first game things got out of hand; pitching was again pounded for five runs in the fifth inning. The Challengers would fight back with a run in the sixth and seventh inning, but it was not enough. They were defeated 6-4, left wondering how they let their impressive season end so quickly. Coach Agona offered his thoughts on the early playoff loss. “I felt that we underachieved in the Sub-District Tournament, but that’s baseball; you got to come out and play your best baseball.”
In addition to Szymczak’s All-Conference honors, Eric Roder, Gabriel Vargas and Connor Ryan also received All- Conference honors, with Roder receiving All-Region honors as well.
The Challengers will be losing nine sophomores after this season, with a few joining each other at Lake Erie College.
This season coach Agona and his staff not only brought back winning to Tri-C, they brought back the joy of the game.