June 26, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Hall of fame to honor 1991 Black River baseball team

The coach, already a Medina County Sports Hall of Fame inductee, is semi-retired and lives in West Union, W.Va., a town so rural that occasional cell phone service is considered a blessing.

The star pitcher has spent the last 15 years as part of the United States Secret Service, including four working presidential detail for George W. Bush.

Somewhere between those two extremes is a power-hitting first baseman who lives in Montville Township and works for MTD Products in Valley City, as well as a quality No. 2 pitcher who resides in Wadsworth and works for Westfield Insurance.

The 1991 Black River baseball team will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during June 13 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

The lives and career paths of those who made up the 1991 Black River High baseball team are certainly diverse, but for about three weeks some 22 years ago, those young men came together under now 63-year-old coach Cary Schafer like few could have predicted.

Once 10-9 and wallowing in mediocrity, the Pirates won 11 straight games to not only capture the Firelands Conference title, but qualify for the Division III state tournament.

“It was an exciting time,” said Gazette MVP Jon Schuck, who worked inside the White House as a member of the Secret Service when Bush was president and now interviews applicants for the job while living in Powell, northwest of Columbus. “We were 10-9 at one point and we just went on a streak.

“The fun part, looking back, was just how everybody contributed. Every time, somebody different stepped up. It was an amazing run to get where we did.”

Whether it was senior first baseman Brandon Dennis delivering a key hit or sophomore Jason Bidinger pitching them to a regional championship, the Pirates made history by becoming the only Black River baseball team to reach the state tournament.

Players and coaches will get to relive many of the magical moments when the 1991 team is honored at the June 13 Medina County Sports Hall of Fame banquet at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth.

“The best part of it was sharing it with all the communities that make up Black River,” said Dennis, who is married and has two children. “I can remember driving home after we won the regional, the bus driver took us through Spencer, Homerville, all these towns in the district. There were people out in their yards waving to us.”

The coach

Every successful team has a few interesting personalities and a handful of stories to tell, but the 1991 Black River team could fill a book.

It started with Schafer, a country-style, old-school disciplinarian before the term “old school” existed, though he also had an extremely warm heart and was so fair and honest that his players adored him.

“I don’t know how well you know Coach Schafer, but he was pretty homespun,” Dennis said. When the interviewer chuckled in acknowledgement, Dennis also laughed and added, “OK, that may be the understatement of the century.”

Schafer’s relationship with the players on the ’91 team was made unique and more special by the fact his son Greg was a burly, 5-foot-9, 210-pound senior catcher who was fast enough to lead the county with 37 stolen bases that year.

As such, Cary Schafer had coached many of the players since they were 7 or 8 years old, all of them moving up through the ranks together. Because those players were friends with Greg, they also spent a lot of time at the Schafer household. Some even worked for their coach, who had a satellite dish business on the side, in the summer.
“Coach Schafer was the ultimate role model,” said Bidinger, now married with two children. “He knew baseball. He lived it. He took a lot of the guys on that team under his wing.
“He brought a lot of perspective to that (postseason) situation. One of the things I remember him saying is, ‘Guys, you don’t realize how special this is. You’re out there playing ball, but this particular situation doesn’t happen to a lot of teams.’ That stands out to me now, because he was so right.”

Cary Schaefer went on to be named Medina County Coach of the Year after the ’91 season, but Greg Schafer, a no-nonsense, hard-nosed leader who was already a lot like his dad, was giving very short answers during a phone interview about his father’s award.

About 15 minutes after the initial interview had concluded, Greg Schafer called a reporter back and apologized, explaining it was awkward for him to talk because his father had been in the room.

“One thing I always thought my dad had was class,” he said then, his voice cracking with emotion. “A lot of coaches make jerks out of themselves if they get beat, and so do a lot of kids. My father taught me that if I got beat, I got beat. That’s what it’s all about. If you can’t play with class, you don’t need to be out there.”

A number of players on the ’91 Black River team referred to Cary Schafer as being like a second father. As such, he could be tough, but his players knew he cared deeply, and not just about wins and losses.

“They’d been around me forever,” Cary Schafer said. “They knew how I was going to react or not react to certain situations. People on the outside saw me as a more hardened individual than I really was. Those kids knew I might yell and scream, but they understood what it was all about.”

The players

There were some very talented players on that Black River team — seniors Dennis, Greg Schafer and Jason Riddle earned all-county honors, while sophomore Bidinger and junior Jim Stangel were accorded honorable mention status — but the undisputed star was Schuck.

Fairly quiet and laid back, the hard-throwing right-hander finished the season with an 11-5 record while throwing complete games in 13 of his 14 starts.

“He was an unassuming guy who just kind of blossomed,” said Dennis, who had been best friends with Schuck since kindergarten. “He had games where he was so dominant it was ridiculous. He had moments when he was untouchable.”

Schuck, who eventually went on to play for the University of Akron and is now married with two children, struck out 140 in 102⅔ innings and finished with a 2.25 earned run average, a mark that was 2.01 prior to the state semifinals.

“Jon wasn’t a holler guy, but you give him the baseball and he’d give you his all,” Cary Schafer said. “I can’t believe how many innings he pitched.”

Schuck was also a leader on the Black River football and basketball teams, but his overall athleticism was nothing compared to Riddle’s.

Having previously attended D-I Ashland High, Riddle transferred to Black River for his senior year. He missed the Pirates’ first football game, but rushed for more than 1,300 yards in the next nine contests, was named Gazette MVP and went on to add MVP honors in the Medina-Wayne County All-Star Game.

In wrestling, he went 30-6-1 at 171 pounds and reached the state tournament for Black River, again earning all-county honors.

Riddle never ran track for the Pirates — all his football and wrestling teammates talked him into joining them on the baseball team — but his time in the 300-meter hurdles as a junior at Ashland would have been good enough to win the D-III state title.

The fact Riddle was all-county in three sports — and probably would have been picked in four had he run track on a part-time basis — was one of the driving forces behind The Gazette’s decision to start honoring Male and Female Senior Athletes of the Year in 1992.

“Real simple: He was an athlete,” Cary Schafer said. “My feeling is, if you get enough athletes, you can be a good coach. Man, he could catch a fly ball. He could catch up to a lot of things.”

Having not played baseball for several years, what the center fielder could not do was hit a curveball. When Riddle caught up to a fastball, he could hit it a mile, but once the scouting report got out, he rarely saw one.

“The best move Coach Schafer made that year was teaching him how to bunt,” Schuck said. “He was so fast.”

At first, Riddle was reluctant to embrace his new role. Then one day Cary Schafer told him he could steal bases whenever he wanted if he got on, so he bunted for base hits three times in four appearances. Each time, he stole second and third.

“There were times when he wasn’t hitting the ball, but the field we had at Black River was all sod,” Dennis said. “If he could put the ball 15 feet in front of the plate, seven out of 10 times he was going to be on first base.”

Riddle finished with 32 stolen bases and ended up hitting .386, but Greg Schafer, who in no way resembled a speedster, actually stole five more. He also hit .380, walked 36 times and had a county-high .589 on-base percentage, but his value to the Pirates went way beyond numbers.

“Greg was our emotional leader,” Bidinger said. “He was an awesome guy and a great student. He was an intense guy and he was tough, so no one would argue with him. When I pitched, he was the one that kept me under control. He was very good at that.”

One of those kids who looked and acted like he was 27 when he was 17, Greg Schafer was almost like an assistant coach.

“Greg heard it from me day and night,” Cary Schafer said. “There was no getting away from Dad for him.”

On a fast, scrappy team that liked to play small ball, Dennis was the primary power source with four home runs, 24 RBIs and a .316 average.

Toss in guys like Lee Swain, Erik Cruz, Jeff Nixon and Daryl Myers and the Pirates were definitely a talented bunch.

It just took them awhile to put everything together.

“I had pretty high expectations when the season started,” Cary Schafer said. “Most of those kids had been around for a while, we talked Jason Riddle into giving up track for baseball and we jumped off to a 4-1 start.

“Then we were 5-5. We could just not seem to stay real consistent.”

The streak

After a do-everything-wrong Firelands Conference loss at Plymouth, the Pirates were just one game over .500 (10-9) and facing a long bus ride home.

Cary Schafer still had faith in his team, but knew it was put-up or shut-up time.

“We had just gotten totally taken apart at Plymouth,” Dennis said. “I remember Mr. Schafer sitting us down on the bus ride home and telling us we could be as good as we wanted to be, but we had to want to be.”

Smart players, the Pirates got the message and started winning, with virtually every game producing a new hero.

With league games interspersed with tournament games, the Pirates were playing almost every day for a while, but nothing could keep them from a Firelands title.

Almost forgotten is that in their tournament opener, the Pirates had to score in the bottom of the seventh to beat Columbia. They went on to beat Avon in the district semifinals and Rocky River in the district finals to set up a regional semifinal against extremely well-known and highly regarded St. Vincent-St. Mary.

“All year, I never talked to anybody but the Medina paper and the Ashland paper,” Cary Schafer said. “All of a sudden I was getting calls from the Akron Beacon Journal and Plain Dealer asking how we were going to compete with mighty St. Vincent-St. Mary.”

Cary Schafer made no predictions, but he did tell those reporters if the Pirates continued to get good pitching and defense, they would have a chance.

As it turned out, Black River scored its first run when Riddle got on, stole second and went to third when Cary Schafer put on a fake bunt and had him steal. The Pirates then used a squeeze play to get him home.

Late in the game, Riddle was on third and mistakenly thought the squeeze was on again, so he broke for home. Riddle would have been a dead duck, but the pitcher was so rattled he threw the ball to the backstop.

The Pirates ended up winning 6-2, with Schuck improving to 4-0 in the postseason.

“There were some people, even in our community, that said it was hocus-pocus baseball,” Cary Schafer said. “I remember after the St. V game, this really big man from their side came walking up to me. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he stuck out his hand and said, ‘Coach, I just want to congratulate you and tell you that your team showed us how to play baseball.’

“They had professional warm-ups and great uniforms, and our kids had holes in their pants. We had fat kids, skinny kids, short kids. But it didn’t matter.”

Black River’s regional semifinal win came on a Saturday. Because a ton of rain prior to that had put the tournament way behind schedule, the regional final was played Sunday against another private school power, Chanel.

That meant Schuck’s arm wouldn’t be ready to start, leaving the Pirates’ season in the hands of Bidinger. Perhaps too young to completely comprehend what was at stake, the sophomore gave up three hits and one earned run while going 6⅓ innings in a 5-2 victory, raising his record to 9-3 and dropping his ERA to 2.65.

“That game is a blur,” Bidinger said. “I just remember the nerves and then the celebration afterward.”

The bunting man, Riddle, took care of the offense with a grand slam. In all, he went 6-for-7 in Black River’s two regional games.

“By then, I had him bunting about all the time,” Cary Schafer said. “I looked in there and said, ‘Let’s go ahead and swing away.’ Lo and behold, he hits it over the center-field fence. That was one of my greatest coaching moves.”

The Pirates’ storybook season ended in the state semifinals at Canton’s Thurman Munson Stadium, where they lost 12-5 to eventual state champion Hamilton Badin. Badin finished 21-12 that year, with nine of its losses coming against D-I teams.

“They were a dynamite team,” Cary Schafer said of the Rams. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Black River led 5-3 after the top of the fourth, but committed two errors that led to seven unearned runs. Schuck, who had thrown complete games in his first 13 starts of the season, gave up an uncharacteristic 13 hits in 5⅔ innings.

“It was a big stage for us and I remember being shell-shocked a little bit,” Bidinger said. “It was a tough loss, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s one of my greatest memories from high school.”

The five seniors on that team — Schuck, Dennis, Riddle, Myers and Greg Schafer — now 40 years old or very close to it, that memory has become more special with each passing year.

“I can remember telling those kids before the Badin game, ‘Regardless of what happens today, you don’t realize what you’ve accomplished,’” Cary Schafer said. “And they didn’t. But they do now.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.