Westlake falls short in bid for state championship
Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by Larry Bennet
Throughout the 2012 tournament, the Westlake baseball team had come up with the winning combination of solid pitching, clutch hitting and strong defensive play. The result was a run all the way to the Division I championship game Saturday afternoon in Columbus.
Under sunny skies at Huntington Park, however, the Demons fell short in all three categories against perennial state powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller. Even so, they made the Crusaders squirm until the very end.
Westlake scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, but it was too little, too late as Moeller came away with a 9-6 win and its sixth state championship since 1972. The Crusaders prevailed despite getting outscored 4-1 in the final four innings and getting out-hit, 9-8.
Westlake, making its first-ever appearance in the state final four, ended the best season in school history with a record of 24-7. It was only the third loss in the last 23 games for the Demons, who racked up Southwestern Conference, Lorain District and Cleveland Regional Championships on the way to the title game.
As one would expect, the loss was tough on the players and coaches, especially head coach Jeff Short. Having announced his retirement prior to the season, he addressed the media along the first base line for the final time.
“Give Moeller credit. They have a good program, and they have a good team,” said Short, who fought back tears as he answered questions.
“We didn’t have one of our better games, but you still have to give them credit,” Short said. “They’re good. They’re very good. My kids are just crazy. They just keep giving it all they’ve got. We keep coming back on them despite getting down big early.
“I mean, we’ve got the bases loaded with the middle of our lineup coming up. Then in the last inning Bowers hits one off the wall. If Haders gets that ball down the line and we get Strodtbeck and Lackner up, I feel pretty good about our chances.
“What did it end up, 9-6? And we were down 9-3? You know what guys, these kids fight. They fight and compete. That’s all you can ask for. I really felt we were going to find a way to pull it out in the end,” he added.
Westlake had its chances after digging itself an 8-2 hole in the first three innings. A disastrous second inning saw Moeller scored five runs on just three hits as a pair of walks and two Demons errors fueled the rally.
Despite the rough start, the Comeback Kids kept their heads in the game and gave themselves chances for yet another come-from-behind finish. But on this day, the big hit eluded them each time.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Demons loaded the bases on back-to-back singles from Matt Leonard and Spencer Offredo and a one-out walk to Corey Bowers. That knocked out Moeller’s left-handed starting pitcher John Tanner, who was replaced by another lefty, Phillip Diehl.
Diehl promptly walked Andy Haders to force in Leonard and cut the lead to 8-3. Diehl recovered quickly, however, striking out Danny Strodtbeck swinging and Jamie Lackner looking to end the threat.
The Crusaders got that run back in the top of the fifth. That’s when Moeller catcher Cameron Whitehead singled, stole second, went to third on a hit and scored on a wild pitch with two outs. The Demons went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the frame, but held the Crusaders scoreless in the top of the sixth with David Mauerer on the hill.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Demons went to work against Diehl. With one out, Andrew Dunn hit a sharp single to left. Back-to-back walks to Bowers and Haders loaded the bases again for the middle of the lineup.
Strodtbeck connected this time, driving the ball deep to left to bring in Dunn. A single by Lackner reloaded the bases, bringing up Kevin Neumann. On the first pitch her saw, Neumann hit a slow chopper to the right of first and seemed to beat the throw as Brad Macciocchi tossed to Diehl covering.
First base umpire John Stoughton, however, called Neumann out on the bang-bang play. Again, the Demons had to settle for one run.
“You know what, I’m not going to put any blame on an umpire,” Short said. “It was a close play, a bang bang play. I officiate basketball, and do I make mistakes? Yes. Do I think that was a mistake? I don’t know.
“Would you have liked that to go your way? Sure, because that could break the game open some for us. We loaded the bases that inning, but there were other opportunities for us to score where we didn’t, so I’m not going to go there,” said Short, whose team stranded 11 base runners on the day.
Jesse Buhrman came in to pitch for the Demons in the seventh and allowed just one base runner on a walk. In the bottom of the inning, Westlake started in a two-out hole against the third Moeller pitcher of the day, John Hakemoller, as the Crusader dugout swelled with anticipation.
The Demons, though, managed to put Moellers' celebration on hold a while longer.
Buhrman came to the plate and worked his way into a 2-2 count. He fouled off two more pitches before hitting a line drive single up the middle off the glove of Moeller shortstop Jordan Simpson. Dunn was up next and drew a five-pitch walk, bringing Bowers to the plate.
Bowers took a 2-1 pitch from Hakemoller and drilled it deep to left. The ball hit the wall, bringing home Buhrman and Dunn to draw the Demons closer. Hakemoller, however, got Haders to fly out to right, ending the game, the season and the Demons’ storybook tournament run.
It also ended Short’s 24-year tenure as the leader of the Westlake baseball program.
“Other than winning today, you couldn’t write the script any better,” Short said. “I mean, going out and getting all the way down here with this group of kids. I told our seniors that even if we’re 10-15, I still wanted to go out with them.
“I love this group. It’s a great group of seniors. I’ve had more talented teams that didn’t go as far or finished second in the conference, but you can’t teach confidence. You get that by playing. And you can’t teach resiliency. You talk about teaching lessons in life, guys: Handle adversity. Be resilient in life. That’s what sports does, it teaches you those things.
“I mean, we’re down 6-0 to Ashland. We’re losing to St. Ignatius after leading the whole way. You learn a lot by going through tough times in life,” said.
Short also tipped his cap to the Westlake fans, some of whom skipped graduation ceremonies back home to take in Saturday’s game. After the awards ceremony, the Demons seniors received their diplomas along the fist base line.
“Our fans have been awesome,” he said. “It’s great to get to Columbus and you see a community get behind you. Where I grew up in small town Ohio, you’ve got around 4,000 folks living in town. When you got to state basketball, about 3,800 go down to watch you play.
“Today was a lot like that. Our fans were awesome,” he added.