Saline’s varsity baseball team bested a couple of SEC Red foes to win their fourth straight district championship Saturday.
Saline defeated Pioneer, 5-1, in the semifinal and Huron, 8-1, in the district title game.
The Hornets advance to this weekend’s regional tournament at Dearborn Edsel Ford High School. The Hornets play Allen Park at 10 a.m. Plymouth and Bedford play in the other regional semifinal. The winners play for the regional championship at around 2 p.m., Saturday, with the winner advancing to the quarterfinal at 4 p.m., June 13, at Chelsea High School.
In the semifinal, Saline led 2-1 in the top of the fourth when starter Cole Daniels allowed three straight singles to load the bases.
The game was potentially on the line. Justin Lee stepped up to the plate.
“I was just thinking ‘pound the zone. I’ve got a good defense behind me.’ I struck the first guy out,” said Saline starter Cole Daniels.
Next up was Kirby Winters.
“I got a ground ball to me and twisted it with Sean,” Daniels said.
Daniels field the ground ball, threw to catcher Sean O’Keefe at home for the force. O’Keefe gunned down Winters at first.
Saline’s 2-1 lead was safe. The Hornets added three runs in the bottom of the inning to take a commanding lead.
“It was a big momentum booster. We scored a few runs the next inning. It was good for us,” Daniels said.
In the bottom of the inning, Ted Eppinga singled to center. Ethan Collick doubled to left. Sean Millspaugh’s sacrifice fly scored Eppinga. With two out, Kellan Huang singled to left to score Collick. Jake Finkbeiner walked. With O’Keefe up to bat, the pitcher threw away a pick-off attempt and Huang scored.
Daniels settled down the rest of the way. He went the full seven innings, allowing one run on five hits and two walks. He struck out four.
Saline had taken a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Ryan Foley was hit by a pitch. Huang and O’Keefe walked. Daniels drove in the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly to center. In the second inning Collick and Millspaugh hit back-to-back doubles to give Saline a 2-0 lead. Pioneer scored its only run in the third.
Collick finished the game with two hits, both doubles. Millspaugh doubled, walked and drove in two runs. Pioneer pitchers stayed away from the strike zone with Saline slugger Sean O’Keefe.
Saline had less trouble with Huron.
The Hornets scored twice in the first inning and added runs in the third and fifth before pulling away with a three-run sixth.
Paul Kiyabu started and won. He pitched four innings, allowing a run on six hits and a walk. Kiyabu struck out three. Huang pitched two scoreless innings of relief, giving up two hits and striking out two. Tyler Zmich got the first two outs in the seventh and Justin Flanagan got the final out.
Foley and Eppinga each had two hits. O’Keeve drove in two runs.
Coach Scott Theisen said he was pleased with the Hornets’ playoff performance after a lackluster, by Hornet standards, close to the regular season.
“We got great pitching and good defense. We hit the ball hard – a lot of times right at people. The bottom line is we got the wins,” Theisen said.
The Hornets had one of the most reserved district champion trophy celebrations you’ll see on a high school sports field. While the Hornets were obviously happy to win and move on, it’s clear that winning the district was not the ultimate goal for a team with so many returning players from last year’s squad, which lost in the state championship game.
“We don’t want to take any game lightly, because all it takes is one good pitcher, one bad day and your season is over. But we do expect to play well and play to the best of our abilities. We feel if we can do then we’ll win most ball games,” said senior Sean O’Keefe. “We’ve got some things to clean up and things to improve. As we go to regionals, there will be better opponents and they’ll be gunning for us, too.”