VERSAILLES – For the first time since 2000 the Versailles baseball team is back in the Ohio High School Athletic Association final four.
In the 16 years since Versailles’ last state tournament appearance in baseball the school has sent teams to state in basketball, bowling, cross country, football, golf, swimming, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. While the Tigers have had lots of success in athletics, this trip to the state final four is a huge accomplishment for the baseball program and its players.
“Everyone probably sees Versailles back at the state level and they don’t think much of it knowing our school with such tradition,” senior Brett McEldowney said, “but it’s been 16 years.”
Versailles coach Ryan Schlater remembers that 2000 team, which finished as the state runner up, but his current players were just babies and toddlers back then.
“Sixteen years, that’s a long time,” Schlater said. “I think I remember that game. I was at it. In 2000 I had a few cousins that were playing at the time. I don’t think these guys probably remember … some of these kids weren’t even born.”
Even though it’s been a long time since Versailles last made it this far in the OHSAA tournament, the Tigers were confident that they could make it.
“We’ve got a paper in there on the board, and it had all the goals that we had to meet, and we’ve met every one so far,” senior Jared Niekamp said, referencing a board in the locker room with goals including winning the Midwest Athletic Conference championship and each playoff game. “As we’ve gone we’ve marked everything off. It’s a good feeling every time we put a check mark on that paper.”
The Tigers are hoping to add two more check marks to that list with wins in the state semifinal and the state championship game.
To get the next check mark, Versailles will have to defeat Berlin Hiland, who is ranked No. 1 in the Division III state rankings by both the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association and Prep Baseball Report.
“To me rankings don’t really mean anything whenever you’re this far into the tournament,” Niekamp said. “Anyone is beatable on any given night in baseball. It just depends on who shows up and who is ready to play.”
Playing top teams in the rankings is nothing new to Versailles, who throughout the season has played numerous ranked teams. Just last week in the regional tournament the Tigers beat two teams – Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy and Anna – who both were ranked higher than them.
While the rankings don’t mean much it’s clear that Hiland will be a tough challenge.
“They’re ranked No. 1 for a reason,” Schlater said. “They’re obviously pretty good.”
Versailles and Hiland will play at 10 a.m. Friday at Huntington Park in Columbus, which is the home of the Columbus Clippers minor league baseball team. The winner of that state semifinal game will advance to play for the Division III state championship on Saturday against either Apple Creek Waynedale or Bellville Clear Fork.
“Just being able to have that chance feels good,” junior Kyle Subler said of competing for a state championship.
The Tigers feel pretty good about how they’ve been playing and said they just need to continue pitching, hitting and fielding like they’ve been doing. Last week they were just good enough to pull out a pair of one-run victories in the regional tournament.
“We haven’t been in the lead or dominating any game, but we’ve been playing good baseball overall,” said McEldowney, who is scheduled to be Versailles’ starting pitcher on Friday.
Playing in big games throughout the year, Schlater thinks his team is ready for the big stage of the state final four.
“We’re excited to get here,” the Tiger coach said. “It’s been 16 years so hopefully the kids aren’t too overwhelmed with the situation and just play their game. It’s still baseball.”
While it is just another game, making it to state is really special for the Tigers. He’s been on some great teams before in football, basketball and baseball, but Niekamp said making the state final four this year is the best experience of his high school career.
“This is by far the best,” he said. “This is my first state trip, and it’s never felt any better than this. This is as cool as cool can get.”
Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316. Follow me on Twitter @KShanerAdvocate or get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.