Brock Netter, Staff Writer
LANCASTER — Once you reach the regional stage of the tournament, the margin for error is less than slim to none.
The smallest of mistakes have a way of starting an avalanche that simply can’t be escaped.
Minford (25-3-1) suffered such a fate as it gave up three bases-loaded walks and committed two errors, which added up to a 10-7 loss to Barnesville in a Division III regional final on Saturday at Beavers Field.
The Falcons end their season as conference, sectional and district champions.
“First things first, congrats to Barnesville. They came in fresh off playing 12 innings less than 18 hours ago, and played very hard. They were better than us today,” Minford coach Anthony Knittel said. “If I’m being honest, I think we outplayed them in a lot of aspects, but we gave up way too many free bases and it turned into runs. It just wasn’t our day all around.”
This marked Minford’s third straight appearance in a regional final, and even though its an expectation it has set for itself as a program, this trip was probably the most unexpected one.
Considering it fielded a lineup of mostly unproved players, they earned their stripes throughout the season and gained valuable experience as to what it means to play baseball for one of the best programs in Southern Ohio.
“I don’t think a lot of people expected us to have the season we did considering who we lost from what would have been the 2020 season,” Knittel said. “But these kids are fighters and they never quit. At the same point though, we expect to be here next season and playing in June again with a year of experience under out belts. If they don’t expect to be here then it’s not worth showing up to play.”
Although the Falcons committed a fielding error to start the game, Levi Coriell fired a strikeout to end the threat with a runner on third.
In turn, his offense gave him some early run support in the bottom half. With two runners on, Matthew Risner ripped an RBI single to center field to put Minford ahead 1-0.
However, Barnesville (24-7) had a response in the top of the second. It scored on a bases loaded walk to tie the game, then scored on the next at-bat via a throwing error to take a 2-1 lead.
Not to be outdone, the Falcons battled and got runners on first and third with two outs in their next offensive turn.
The Shamrocks threw a wild pitch that allowed Branson Alley to slide head first safely into home, tying the game at 2-2.
Minford then took a lead with a bunt RBI single from Risner before Alley notched an RBI single to right field to push the lead to 4-2.
The Shamrocks, however, blew things wide open in the top of the fourth.
After tying the game at 4-4 with back-to-back bases-loaded walks, Jake Edwards laced a two-run single down the left field line. Gavin Carpenter followed with a two-run single to left for an 8-4 lead.
“Barnesville is a team filled with juniors and seniors, and comparing that to us who are mainly freshman and sophomores, they understand this stage and moment a lot more,” Knittel said. “They were hungry and our guys didn’t quite understand that until it was too late. It all comes back to giving up free bases, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, you can’t give up those opportunities.”
Two innings later, Barnesville put the game out of reach. A throwing error with two outs kept the inning alive for the Shamrocks and scored a run. Carpenter then stepped up and laced an RBI double to right-center field, extending the lead to 10-4.
Minford had a chance to answer in the fifth with two runners on base, but grounded out to end the threat.
With darkness beginning to creep over the Falcons’ season, they attempted to mount one final rally in the bottom of the seventh.
After it loaded the bases with no outs, Risner got an RBI single to drop into left field. Then came a sacrifice fly off the bat of Coriell, followed by an RBI groundout from Alley to put the game at 10-7.
Minford attempted to continue the rally and put the burners on the Shamrocks, but the Falcons flew out to end the game and bring a close to their season.
“Overall, I’m proud of the season we had,” Knittel said. “There’s no below average or average season at Minford, we expect to do this every year. It’s a business trip and our guys did a great job fighting until the very end and giving themselves a chance. We battled tough, but we never found a rhythm and it was just too late once we did.”
Risner finished 3-for-3 with a run scored and three RBIs, followed by Alley going 2-for-4 with a run and two RBIs.
Queen went 1-for-3 with a triple and a run scored, while Elijah Vogelsong was 2-for-4 with two runs scored.
Although Minford brings back seven of its nine starters next season, it will more forward without its two pillars in Risner and Vogelsong, who Knittel credits for changing the mentality of the program as they helped bring Minford three SOC II, three sectionals, three districts and a regional title during their careers.
“Elijah came to me in his freshman year and told me that he didn’t care what he had to do or where he played, he just wanted to win because he was tired of losing. From that day I’ve held him to that standard and he answered every single time,” Knittel said. “The team rallies around him and he just brings the competitive attitude every single game. I don’t know if he realized that he started something, but he did because of that mentality. Matthew is a little bit more quiet, but he leads by example. He’s incredibly coachable and performs at the highest level every single time. He brought some toughness and was ready to do anything we asked from him.
“Seeing them both mature not just as ball players but as young men, that’s what means to most and that’s why we coaches do what we do. Not just for the wins and the love of the game, but to impact young men and help them grow as they get older. Those two are going to be incredibly successful as they move onto the next stages of their life. They’ve done so much for the program and it’ll be a tough task to replace them.”