MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon High School baseball coach Doug Savage is no stranger to playoff baseball. After nearly 22 years as a coach, he knows what it takes to win.
Savage, who is retiring at the end of the season, has guided two other teams to the Division I Regional Final, and that’s where his last squad stands on the brink of. The Yellow Jackets (27-3) will face the New Albany Eagles at 2 p.m. on Thursday for the right to compete for another regional final.
“This is very exciting just as it was the last two times we’ve been to the regional finals,” said Savage. “This is kind of bringing back old memories, which is exciting. To win a district championship, you have to have a good team and get a little bit lucky too. You’ve got to get a break or two in order to win, and that’s kind of what happened in our situation.”
Savage took back to back squads to the regional final in 2001 and 2002, but the Jackets lost both contests. He’s hoping the third time is the charm with a team in which he sees some similarities.
“I think this team does compare (with the previous two regional teams),” said Savage. “We have a very mature team; we have a lot of people with a lot of experience. A lot of them got a lot of innings under their belts last year. They won back-to-back OCC Championships, which certainly helped them. We are just a solid team like I remember the teams we had last time we made regionals. They were solid teams one through nine. They were not superstars, but good solid teams.”
The Jackets have worked their way to this point, battling for each and every win in the tournament. This after setting a school record for wins in a season during the regular season. Savage believes that his team is prepared for whatever it may face.
“The Tri-Valley win was definitely a good win for us,” said Savage. “They came in 22-2, and were ranked in the top 10 in the state. It was a barn-burner, but we won 4-3. ... Then we got off to a little bit of a shaky start against Pickerington North, but we rallied for a 5-4 win in 12 innings. We were fortunate enough to chip away and get a two-run single by Robert Kane to tie the game in the seventh inning, then we won it in 12. Those were two hard-fought wins. Then of course on Saturday against Olentangy Liberty, we had another hard-fought win. The road to getting here hasn’t been easy, but we’ve been able to come out on the upper hand so far.”
New Albany (19-12) is a familiar foe. Both the Jackets and Eagles play in the Ohio Capital Conference Capital Division, which is rare. Mount Vernon won the regular-season series, but the Eagles won four straight games in the tournament, including a 10-1 defeat of Dublin Jerome in the district final, to advance.
“Anytime you see two teams at the level from the same division, especially the Capital Division, it is probably a little surprising, not only to us but to everyone in the Central District,” Savage said. “When you start off with 42 teams and end up with two from the ‘small-school division,’ that doesn’t happen very often.”
Mount Vernon beat New Albany, 5-4, on April 19 at home. The Jackets then turned around and beat the Eagles, 14-2, in the final OCC game on May 5. Savage isn’t sure which team to expect on Thursday, though he does feel the 5-4 loss squad is closer to the real one based upon their postseason run.
“It is kind of hard to predict,” said Savage of which New Albany squad is the real one. “I remember when we played them and beat them, 5-4, I thought they had a lot of talent. It seemed like they had a good solid team. I think they are a very capable team. They are probably playing their best baseball here at the end. They’ve beaten some quality opponents, and had some tough games to get where they are. It think it is going to take a great effort to beat them.”
Heading into the regional semifinal, there is a sense of familiarity surrounding the game, but Savage doesn’t believe that changes anything.
“They know us just as well as we know they, if that means anything,” said Savage. “I think it is going to boil down to who plays the best on that particular day. We are going to try and keep the same game plan that we always keep. It all starts with your pitcher and then your defense has to be solid. Offensively, we’ve got to have tough outs one through nine. We’ve got to keep pressure on their defense to make plays.”
And as for beating a team three times in one season, “It is a cliché,” Savage said. “We’ve heard it since we were a little kid. Every time you play, the odds go up that you are not going to keep beating the same team over and over. If you play good baseball, though, there is no reason why you can’t keep beating them. We found out last year against Zanesville that it only takes one bad inning to cost you the game, so anything can happen. We’ve just got to try to do everything we can to prepare for it. The team that plays best from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon is going to win the game. I think they are capable of beating us, and we are capable of beating them.”
The game, which will be played at 2 p.m. at Dublin Coffman High School, will be followed by the second semifinal between Upper Arlington (23-8) and Cincinnati Elder (23-4). The winners of both games advance to the regional final on Friday at 5 p.m.
“Once you get to this level, even in the district semifinals, up and down the line you are facing good competition,” said Savage. “You know you are going to be playing someone good, and everybody has got their horses.”