Three games into the postseason, the Central Catholic Crusaders are on their grind.

PERRY TWP.  Three games into the postseason, the Central Catholic Crusaders are on their grind.

Winning yet another district championship may not surprise area baseball fans given the program’s storied history and status as the defending Division III state champion, but getting to hoist another trophy was anything but a peaceful springtime stroll for Central.

Central had a first-round bye in the Struthers bracket and despite playing 10th-seeded Rootstown in a sectional final, the Crusders didn’t rout the Rovers the way some may have expected. The 6-4 decision advanced them on to face South Range, who couldn’t dent the scoreboard but pitched well and played solid defense to stay in the game all afternoon long despite losing 4-0.

Following two close calls, Central locked horns with third-seeded Cardinal Mooney in an all-Catholic school district final, grinding out a 3-2 win by playing the sort of solid, fundamental baseball that has carried them all season long.

“That is the type of team we have been this year … excellent pitching (and) the defense has been good for the most part,” veteran head coach Doug Miller said. “We have had some timely hitting and we have been able to manufacture runs.”

Playing and winning close games can push a team in one of two directions. It can rattle a squad’s confidence and cause players to doubt how good they are, or it can embolden them with the knowledge that they can do what is necessary to win in pressure situations. According to Miller, the three close wins in the district bracket have boosted Central’s belief in itself.

“Our confidence level is very high. We have played a great regular season schedule (and) we were able to come through a very tough district,” Miller said. “South Range had a Division I pitcher (who is) heading to Buffalo in the (Mid-American) Conference. Cardinal Mooney was a great high school baseball team that was well-coached and played a great schedule.”

Central took on several big tests late in the season, playing big-school powers Jackson and St. Ignatius, both of which won district titles in Division I, along with Berlin Hiland - the top-ranked team in Division III - and Massillon. All were big challenges, and while they left Central with losses on its record, an unblemished regular season wasn’t the primary goal for the Crusaders.

Their aim is to win a fourth state title in Miller’s final season after he signed a buyout with the school earlier this season, ending a three-plus decade run with Central. The lessons ingrained in the players’ minds from last season’s title run are paying dividends now, and with Ohio State recruit Jake Vance the ace of the rotation, the Crusaders believe they can handle whatever the tournament throws at them.

“We have some players who experienced the run last year so they know what it takes,” Miller said. “That certainly helps. They can help the younger guys who were not on the team last year.”

Part of the beauty in Central’s success this season is the simplicity with which it has racked up wins. There hasn’t been an offensive onslaught to bludgeon foes into submission or loads of complicated, intricate strategy to gain a tactical edge. Instead, the Crusaders have committed themselves to playing sound, fundamental baseball and trusted that their reliable pitching staff will do its job in tandem with the defense, allowing the offense to grind out runs and find enough firepower to win.

“We have to continue to get good pitching and play good defense - limit teams to three outs - and take advantage of our opportunities on offense,” Miller said of Central’s keys to continued success.

While no one in green and white is thinking too far ahead, it is a team confident in where it stands and in its ability to stand in and trade punches with any opponent. That confidence has been earned and developed during the course of a long season and for many members of the roster, as a part of last season’s title team.

Winning a state championship is a month-long endeavor of pressure-packed baseball for whomever ultimately hoists the trophy at Huntington Park in Columbus next month, so having to grind out a few wins to get the process rolling is perfectly OK with these Crusaders. 

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