JEROMESVILLE —Music boomed from the loudspeaker sitting inside the third base dugout as players congregated in the outfield grass to shag fly balls.
The most meaningful baseball game in program history was 48 hours away, but it was business as usual Wednesday afternoon at Hillsdale High School.
If the Falcons were feeling any pressure, they were doing a remarkably good job of concealing it.
Hillsdale will play small-school heavyweight Minster in the Division IV state semifinals at 4 p.m. Friday at Canal Park in Akron, home of the RubberDucks. The Falcons are making their first ever state tournament experience while Minster has won three state titles since 2011. The Wildcats, who compete in the rugged Midwest Athletic Conference, most recently raised the championship trophy in 2017.
“Minster has a great tradition,” first-year Hillsdale coach Jason Snow said. “Their kids expect to be here. We’re trying to get to that level.”
The Falcons have enjoyed their fare share of success the last two years but had been unable to get past the district championship game. Hillsdale fell to Wayne County Athletic League rival Dalton 9-8 in the district finals in 2017. Last year it was fellow WCAL member Waynedale that stopped Hillsdale 5-3 in the district championship game.
“It’s been frustrating in past years, but now that we’ve gotten over that hump we’re just having fun now,” said Garrett Goodwin, one of Hillsdale’s four seniors. “There’s pressure that comes from playing in the state semifinals, but I don’t think there was any added pressure this year because we lost in the district semifinals the last couple of years.”
A hard-throwing right-hander headed to Shawnee State, Goodwin boasts an 8-1 record with 60 strikeouts and a 1.11 earned run average. Fellow senior Jay Luikart is 10-0 with 113 strikeouts and a microscopic 0.68 ERA.
“Our goal was to win a district title because this group never had done it,” said Luikart, who is headed to Division I Wright State. “We had one thing on our mind and we were very focused.”
Hillsdale opened tournament play with an 11-1 win over Independence in the sectional finals before surviving a 1-0 nail-biter over East Canton in the district semifinals in which Goodwin fired a no-hitter. The Falcons beat Lake Center Christian 10-0 in the district finals before overwhelming Seneca East 7-1 in the regional semifinals and unloading on New Middletown Springfield 16-2 in the regional championship game.
“The pressure was on the for district, but after that we relaxed and played our game,” said senior designated hitter Garrett Crites. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
Hillsdale outscored its two regional opponents by a combined score of 23-3. The Falcons spotted Springfield a 2-0 lead before scoring eight runs in the bottom of the first and four more in the second.
“After we gave up those two runs, I think it kind of made us mad,” said senior Garrett Smith, who was also a standout football player on Hillsdale’s playoff teams in 2017 and 2018. “I don’t know if we expected to score 16 runs in the regional final, but we have put in a lot of work to get to where we are.”
As good as Luikart and Goodwin have been on the mount, Hillsdale has been every bit as dangerous at the plate. The Falcons are hitting .388 as a team.
The left-handed Luikart leads the way with a .505 batting average to go with an area-best 11 home runs and 54 RBIs. He knocked in five runs in the regional championship game and had two games during the regular season where he homered twice and knocked in seven runs. Remarkably, 23 of his 48 hits have gone for extra bases (he has 12 doubles to go with his 11 homers).
Goodwin is batting .443 with three home runs, 35 RBIs and an area-leading 51 runs scored. Carsten Betson is hitting .412, while Crites is batting .409 and sophomore Ty Williams is batting an even .400.
While the stakes are higher, the Falcons are doing their best to approach Friday’s game like any other. The mood was light Wednesday during batting practice.
“I don’t think we see this game any differently than some of the other big games we played in this year, the WCAL championship game or the district championship game,” Goodwin said. “It’s just another game to us even if our school has never been here before.”
In Friday’s late Division IV semifinal game, Antwerp takes on Toronto. The Division IV state final is at 1 p.m. Sunday in Akron.
Have the Falcons allowed themselves to think about what winning the state title might feel like?
“I would be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it,” Crites said. “It would be cool it if happened. We’ll just play our game and see what happens.”