July 24, 2016

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MVP coaches: Greg Pickard’s approach worked wonders at Wadsworth

Wadsworth baseball coach Greg Pickard is the 2014 Gazette Spring Coach of the Year. (RON SCHWANE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION)

Wadsworth baseball coach Greg Pickard is the 2014 Gazette Spring Coach of the Year. (RON SCHWANE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION)

The fundamental reasons why the Wadsworth baseball team was so successful this season were, well, fundamentals.

Every coach preaches them from T-ball to the big leagues. Whether the players get the message is the underlying question.

When both mesh with perfect harmony, however, a team like the Grizzlies is born. Pizzazz was overrated. Wadsworth preferred to win with
old-fashioned simplicity.

That was made possible by third-year coach Greg Pickard, The Gazette Spring Coach of the Year who led the Grizzlies to a sparkling 22-2 record and their first Suburban League championship since 2004.

The 37-year-old’s approach to the game was so consistent that he used the word “we” subconsciously when he had every right to use “I” during a 10-minute phone interview.

“Honestly, it’s pretty much keeping it simple,” he said. “We really work hard on throwing strikes, changing speeds, having a good secondary pitch as well as a strong defense. Offensively, we really work hard on putting the ball in play, working counts. We talk a lot about a quality at-bat. That’s something that’s big in our program.”

Wadsworth didn’t bomb the ball all over the park, a pitching staff tutored by Medina County Sports Hall of Famer and two-time MLB draft choice Bill Gearhart didn’t ring up strikeouts at astronomical rates and its defense didn’t amaze with diving catches or rocket throws.

Instead, the Grizzlies lulled opponents to sleep with a mistake-free game. Batters made contact that drove in runners — or, at the very least, moved them over — pitchers pounded the lower half of the strike zone, fielders hit cut-off men and baserunning gaffs were limited.

Think of the successful basketball team that scores 50 points per game or the football team that runs the ball 90 percent of the time.

Those teams aren’t sexy. They wear down the opposition and win.

“We had a lot of come-from-behind victories (6) and one-run games (8), and that says a lot about the kids,” said Pickard, a 1995 Rittman High graduate who played four years of infield at Walsh University. “It was always one little thing that sparked us in those games — a hit by pitch, walk, error, whatever.”

The resume of Wadsworth, which lost to nationally ranked Walsh Jesuit in the Hudson Division I District semifinals, was eye-popping. The Grizzlies had winning streaks of 10 and 11 games — they outscored opponents 104-29 during the latter — took the SL title by an unheard of five-game margin and were ranked seventh in the Prep Baseball Report state poll.

Ace right-hander Nick Bebout was Gazette MVP and joined on the first team by hard-nosed shortstop Riley Campbell, defensive-oriented catcher Alex Laikos and breakout outfielder Mason Egleston. Closer Cameron Deemer, steady first baseman Kyle Pennington, slick-fielding second baseman Adam Dennison and No. 2 starter Eric Perebzak were honorable mention.

The Grizzlies took Northeast Ohio by storm despite returning only four starters from last season’s 22-5 team. Their .863 winning percentage since 2013 is tied with 1994-95 Brunswick as the best over a two-year span by a county team since records became readily available in the late 1940s.

“We honestly never really looked into winning streaks or anything like that,” Pickard said. “You stay in one game at a time, and we break it down by winning every inning. We found a few things to use as motivation: Try to score first and get big innings. We really focused on doing the small things and winning little bits at a time. The good thing was when the kids did that, we were successful.”

The statistics prove the effectiveness of Pickard’s preaching. Wadsworth’s team batting average was just five one-thousandths less than last season and its on-base percentage (.429) was identical, but extra-base hits were down a whopping 50 percent.

Moving from the all-dirt infield of offense-friendly A.C. Field to a new facility behind the two-year-old high school was a reason for the latter, but the Grizzlies stole 46 percent more bases to make up for it. They even increased their batting average with runners in scoring position, the pitchers issued 35 percent less walks and the defense improved steadily as the season wore on

Last but certainly not least, Wadsworth took great pride in embracing the situational aspect of the game.

“The game I think of was the Massillon game (April 12),” Pickard said in reference to the opener of a non-league doubleheader. “We were losing 4-0 and sleepwalking, and we managed to manufacture a few runs to make it a one-run game going into the last inning.

“We ended up winning (5-4 in 8 innings), and it showed them it doesn’t always take a double or a home run. It helped the kids understand the game better.”

The Grizzlies won’t be slowing down any time soon, as they will lose only three starters — designated hitter Aden Campbell, Perebzak and outfielder Greg Young — to graduation. The departures simply open potential doors for Palidar brothers Dylan and Craig, who combined to hit .447 in part-time at-bats, and Saturday pitching starter Chris Byers.

Suffice it to say, Wadsworth has returned to Northeast Ohio’s elite.

“We really found ways to keep kids positive and not pressing,” Pickard said. “To me, obviously going through the short season as a player, when you have a couple bad games, they can set you back a long way. Learning how to hit the ball the other way and understanding situational baseball was really big.”

Pickard then used the word “I” for the only times.

“Those were things in my first year (while going 9-17 in 2012) I took for granted,” he said. “I learned the hard way, but I learned pretty quickly.”

Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.

Albert Grindle About Albert Grindle

Albert Grindle is a sportswriter for the Gazette. He can be reached at 330-721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.