The scene is automatic at the regional or state level, regardless of sport: A handful of losing players fail to keep composure and shed a tear in realization that their hard work and dedication fell short.
No one dares to chastise that. It’s natural.
Following the Mentor baseball team’s 6-3 victory Thursday over Brunswick in the Canton Division I Regional semifinals at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium, the Blue Devils’ faces were clearly disappointed — underrated third baseman Corey Welsh sitting on the bench with a blank stare stood out — but with dry eyes.
It was a microcosm of Brunswick’s season. Win or lose, the lunch pails were brought with more maturity than many of the adults sitting in the stands.
That’s what makes Thursday heartbreaking. Coach Todd Winston’s team overcame so much in a short window to make an inspiring run in the postseason.
The season began with high expectations. Brunswick returned very productive starters Kyle Burson, Kyle Michalik, Gerry Salisbury, Brian Lees and Gary Clift Jr. from 2012’s district runner-up team, re-added a healthy Kyle Wheeler and had speed to burn with new outfielders Ryan Kuntz and Joey Verbiak.
For whatever reason, the hype didn’t match the results despite a hot start from Welsh, a full-time varsity newcomer. Five losses in a seven-game stretch, including 2-1 to Mentor and a defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory decision to Twinsburg, left Brunswick 12-8 and looking up in the Northeast Ohio Conference River Division standings.
Then seldom-used senior Mike Cintron lit the fire. Against state-ranked Norwalk in the second game of a non-league doubleheader at Mansfield Madison, Cintron — like always — was warming up a relief pitcher. He then was summoned to pinch-hit, smashed an RBI double without batting an eye and sprinted back to the bullpen during a 9-5 victory.
The momentum of Cintron’s big moment wasn’t stopped until Thursday.
Like clockwork, pitchers Michalik, Salisbury and No. 3 man Nick Furman — a clear-cut league starter on most teams — caught fire. A so-so defense that was a supposed strength became nearly flawless, and moving Lees to the 7-hole sparked Clift, Verbiak and Kuntz at the bottom of the lineup.
Salisbury two-hit archrival Strongsville to keep Brunswick alive in the division race. Michalik then grinded his way to a 6-3 decision the next day, and Medina stunned Mentor in its last at-bat to give the Blue Devils a four-way share of the championship.
Defense by Kevin Soucek, who only plays second base when Michalik pitches and Burson moves to short, contributed to a 4-2 sectional triumph over 22-win Wadsworth. Clift and Verbiak had multihit games against Twinsburg in the district semis and Michalik one-hit Hudson for the district title.
Even in losing to Mentor on Thursday, there was another bright spot off the bench. Clift was at home battling norovirus that has swept through the school district — Winston also missed a few games because of it — and David Reiter Jr., who had appeared in a handful of games all season, singled and scored a run in the last-stand seventh inning.
Winston spent a good chunk of practice Wednesday praising not Ohio State recruit Michalik, not Ohio signee Salisbury, not Akron commit Lees and not surefire college player Burson. He instead pointed to Cintron, easily the team’s biggest cheerleader, and Reiter, who lost his father, David Sr., nearly 10 years ago, as the unsung heroes.
Winston arrived to that practice late after picking up a carton full of bottled water meant for every player. He was taking no chances with a norovirus threat still lingering.
The assistant coaches were absent as well, yet the entire team was long-tossing and practicing bunts without supervision.
When Winston arrived, he smiled from ear to ear — something he doesn’t do very often on the baseball field. No matter what the day, his team came to work. Check your egos at the door or leave.
Attitude like that will translate not only to the baseball world, but to the real world as well.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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