Antwerp has already turned 2019 into the most magical baseball season in the school’s history with the program’s first ever Green Meadows Conference title, first district title and first regional title.
The Archers (19-5) are just two wins away from joining their softball counterparts as Division IV state champions, leading into Friday’s state semifinal matchup at 7 p.m. against No. 6 Toronto (25-5) at Canal Park in Akron, home of the Double-A Akron RubberDucks, an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.
Minster and Jeromesville Hillsdale play the other D-IV state semifinal at 4 p.m. on Friday. The two victors will return Sunday for a 1 p.m. state championship tussle.
For Antwerp, the uncharted territory is not a weight or pressure on the program. Rather, the team has used both the unpredictable run to state and the energy from the softball team’s win over Mechanicsburg on Sunday to take on a ‘why not us’ attitude.
“It’s a situation where we’ve never been here before but it also comes down to the fact that we’ve got nothing to lose,” said Antwerp coach Zac Feasby. “I know we’re going to be playing a Toronto team that’s very good.
“I think (the softball run) has energized our players. It’s motivated our guys and I feel like all tournament long, it’s almost been a competition. The softball team is accomplishing these things and my guys are thinking the same thing. I don’t think the guys feel pressured, it’s mostly motivating them.”
There will be plenty of motivation in the Toronto dugout as well. The Red Knights entered the 2017 state tournament ranked No. 1 in the final OHSBCA poll of last season but were blanked by eventual state champion Minster 3-0 in the state semifinals.
With Minster taking on Jeromesville Hillsdale in the other Division IV state semifinal, the chance for revenge is still there for Toronto but first, Antwerp looms.
“Any time you face a team in the state Final Four, they’re always going to be good,” explained Toronto skipper Brian Perkins of his opponent. “They have a lot of very, very good young talent. Their top two pitchers are young but they’re obviously very good. They knocked off some well-respected programs on the way to the Final Four.
“There’s a lot of excitement in that community. Their softball team just won a state final. They obviously have a lot of great athletes going through. Our kids will be excited for the challenge.”
Despite a stellar .314 team batting average, pitching and defense have been the two main catalysts for the Archers in this postseason. Antwerp did not allow a hit in a sectional final win over Pettisville or a district semifinal win over Edon thanks to the arm of sophomore righty Austin Lichty and held Colonel Crawford scoreless in a 1-0 regional semifinal victory.
A pair of double plays helped keep Colonel Crawford off the board in the semifinals at Patrick Henry before clutch relief pitching by Jacob Savina and 11 strikeouts from freshman Luke Krouse helped the Archers storm back from a 3-0 first-frame deficit to nip Kalida 4-3 in nine innings to advance to state.
“I expect it to be a low-scoring game because there’s going to be really good pitching on both sides,” explained Feasby. “In both our regional games we’ve shown that we can win the close one.”
Either Lichty (5-0, 0.00 ERA, 50 strikeouts, 39 innings) or Krouse (6-0, 0.66 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 42.1 innings) will start on the mound for the Archers Friday.
Backed up by sluggers like Keaton Altimus (.448, 30 hits, five doubles), Cole Seslar (.308, 24 hits, nine doubles, two homers) and Dylan Hines (.333, 25 hits, eight doubles), both Krouse (.446, 29 hits, 14 doubles, 29 RBIs) and Lichty (.373, 28 hits, five doubles) have the ability to help their own cause.
With just three seniors in the starting lineup in Brett Fulk, Cole Seslar and Keaton Altimus, the youthful Archers will take on a talented Toronto team with a big name headlining the field.
Division IV State Player of the Year Nate Karaffa is the main name to watch in the Toronto lineup as the future Ohio State Buckeye has been a force on the diamond in his senior swan song. Karaffa leads the Red Knights with a .578 average (41-71) with 39 runs, 37 RBIs, 13 doubles, six home runs and 33 steals on the year.
Karaffa, a right-hander, also has shown some prowess on the bump with a 4-0 record in eight appearances (32 innings) with 54 strikeouts and a 1.97 ERA, earning the win in the Knights’ regional final victory over perennial power Newark Catholic.
Karaffa will be a candidate to start Friday’s contest along with junior righty A.J. Clegg, who blanked Huntington with six innings of three-hit shutout ball with nine strikeouts in the regional semifinals. Clegg entered the regional tournament with a 6-0 mark this season, 44 strikeouts and a 1.83 ERA in 30.2 innings.
“Like always, we approach the tournament like we want to win it,” said Perkins. “We don’t want to approach it just to get to the finals. That started in the districts when we jumped up into (Berlin) Hiland’s bracket. Everybody thought we were crazy but we had a plan. then the same thing happened in the regionals.
“We haven’t made our final decision but we’re going to do what we have to do to win this tournament and not just get to the final.”
The postseason has plenty of meaning for the Red Knights as Toronto has won 25 consecutive sectional titles and four straight regional titles along with the program’s state trips in 1987, 1998 and 2017.
Righty Tristan Thomas, a junior, could be a bullpen option if either Karaffa or Clegg falter, holding a 4-3 record with two saves in a team-high 15 appearances and 42.1 innings along with 32 strikeouts and a 1.49 ERA.
Behind Karaffa’s team-best average, junior catcher/outfielder Lucas Gulczynski is hitting the ball well at a .422 clip with 38 hits, nine doubles, 27 RBIs and 25 stolen bases. Nick Chetock (Sr., outfield, .415, 39 hits, 14 RBIs, 21 steals), Thomas (.395, 30 hits, seven doubles, 14 steals), Clegg (.355, 27 hits, nine doubles, 24 RBIs) and Nick Sninchak (Sr., DH, .347, 25 hits, 31 RBIs, 19 steals) add pop to the lineup.
The Red Knights are also eager to move around the basepaths with nine players boasting at least 10 steals on the year as part of 165 total swipes.
Toronto took the long and more difficult road through their postseason, knocking off Beallsville 17-0 and Sarahsville Shenandoah 10-0 in the sectional tournament before matching up with top seed Berlin Hiland in the district semifinals.
The Knights dispatched Hiland 4-0 before knocking off Strasburg-Franklin 5-1 to move on to regionals.
The bigger stage of a bigger stadium will likely not have any adverse effects on either squad. Toronto competed at Huntington Park in Columbus in the 2017 state tournament, home of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Meanwhile, Antwerp has played games over the past few seasons at Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, the stadium for the Single-A Fort Wayne TinCaps.
For those unfamiliar with Toronto High School, the two schools could likely not be farther apart geographically. Antwerp sits less than four miles from the border with Indiana while Toronto is 263 miles away, located right on the Ohio River’s eastern border with West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Toronto is about 10 minutes north of Steubenville and about 45 miles due west of Pittsburgh.