The transformation wasn’t a sudden one for St. Michael the Archangel’s baseball team.
Once last year’s run to the Class 4A state semifinals was over — a 4-1 loss to eventual champion St. Thomas More — the Warriors were cognizant of the challenges ahead in order to retain the program’s elite status.
Gone were two seniors in J.T. Mauldin and Austin Edens regarded for their ability to hit for power during their careers. Also departed were members of an experienced pitching staff that generated its share of strikeouts and took pressure off the defense.
“We talked about ways to make up for some of that power loss, and one way was playing better defense,” St. Michael coach Johnny Bernhard said. “We knew we would have the ability with the players we had returning, and we’ve played better defense. We have a pitching staff that pitches to contact and takes advantage of the good defense behind them.”
The melding of those two facets, combined with an efficient offense, propelled sixth-seeded St. Michael (21-9) to a share of the District 6-4A championship and best-of-three state quarterfinal series at third-seeded Franklinton (21-4) at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
“We expect ourselves to compete and play no matter who we have,” St. Michael shortstop Nolan Tiersch said. “Our hitting’s still there.
“It’s just the fact that our pitching and defense are so good this year and the way we play.”
St. Michael has essentially reinvented itself and played to the strengths of this year’s team,which was four-year starter Christopher Reid at third base and catcher Ross Scelfo to help mentor a rebuilt infield.
Tiersch and second baseman Dwain Varisco have given the Warriors a deft combination up the middle with Reid and first baseman Michael Smith handling the corner infield spots.
“I knew what some of them had, and I knew we would be solid,” said Reid, an LSU signee. “I talked to a few of them at the beginning of the year and what we needed to do to reach our goals. I stressed the routine plays and believing in yourself in tough situations.”
With an even greater emphasis on defense, which has been honed with faster-paced practices, St. Michael’s improved its fielding percentage 32 points to .936 this season, just one facet the Warriors have compensated for fewer runs scored.
The pitching staff led by Tyler Ezell, Jonathan Lofton and Evan Becnel have lowered the staff’s ERA of a year ago from 2.32 to 2.13.
The Warriors have hit four homers compared to 24 a year ago with 64 extra-base hits which pales in contrast to the 102 last season. They’re still scoring 6.6 runs a game, but that’s predicated with the ball more on the ground and being aggressive on the bases.
“We’ve bunted when we’ve needed do, executed in situational hitting,” Tiersch said. “It’s buying into a team (concept), and we needed to play like it.”
Bernhard said he noticed about a month ago after an inning in which his team registered three successive defensive gems, they raced toward the dugout where one unidentified player referred to the team as a bunch of “ball hawks”.
“It kind of fits our team,” he said. “Our outfield covers a lot of ground, and it’s really hard to get a ball through our infield.”
So the phrase has been coined amongst the team and, Bernhard surprised his clubs with red T-shirts with the catch-phrase emblazoned in gray on the back.
“We looked and thought this was exactly what described our team this year,” Reid said. “We go after every ball 100 percent.”