By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
As the final practice of the baseball season for the Webster Thomas Titans wrapped up on Monday, coach Kevin Neenan had one message for his team:
“He said, ‘Come Tuesday, bring your best game possible,’ ” senior pitcher Paul Sofinski said.
The Titans followed orders to perfection.
Sofinski pitched five shutout innings and designated hitter Max Heil ignited a fourth-inning offensive uprising that broke the game open as top-seeded Webster Thomas defeated Greece Athena 11-1 in the Section V Class A championship game on Tuesday night.
“We’re going out in style,” Sofinski said. “This is something to carry with us for the rest of our lives.”
It had been 16 years since Thomas carried the Section V championship block, but the title drought is now finally over. Heil said the sense of team was a huge reason they achieved the ultimate prize.
“The biggest thing is our camaraderie and how much we came together,” said Heil, whose booming double to left in the fourth inning broke a scoreless tie and helped set the table for five-run outburst.
“We started the season 9-0, then lost four in a row and mentally we changed directions. We figured out how to use each other to pull each other up.”
Tuesday’s victory was the Titans’ ninth in a row, bookending the season with 9-0 streaks to finish 18-4.
“I’m so happy for the kids,” Neenan said. “They worked their tails off all year.”
While the final score indicated a lopsided game, a significant turning point came in the top of the first inning.
Jaden Madrid lined Sofinski’s first pitch – a down-the-middle fastball – to right field for a single and then Dylan Bliss drew a seven-pitch walk. That brought up one of Section V’s top hitters, Casey Saucke II.
He, too, worked the count full but swung and missed at the seventh pitch of the at-bat.
“To get that strikeout, that moment, especially for Paul, was huge,” Heil said. “Right then the mentality started to kick in; ‘Look what we can do. We got this.’ ”
Sofinski retired the next two batters to end the threat.
“That was one of the biggest key plays in the game,” Neenan said. “Paul gets a big strikeout and you could just feel the momentum shift.”
Sofinski again flirted with danger in the third inning by allowing two baserunners with one out, but he again maintained composure – and the upper hand.
“In the first and third innings we had two guys on and just couldn’t come up with a hit,” said Athena coach Jason Bunting, whose team finished 16-5.
The Titans finally solved the riddle of Athena starting pitcher TJ Kurtz in the fourth by scoring the five runs. Heil drove in the first run, Dominik Delvecchio and Joe DiNeri each had run-scoring singles and Mitchell Kelly delivered a two-run single to cap the outburst.
Thomas then scored six times in the fifth to essentially end the game, with Greyson McDowell delivering the big hit, a three-run double.
“Each kid stepped up and did his job,” Neenan said.
Any hopes of a late-inning rally by third-seeded Athena were quelled by hard-throwing left-handed reliever Ian McNabb. He methodically retired the six batters he faced, five on strikeouts.
“Paul’s tough and the lefty comes in at the end and shut the door,” Bunting said.
Notes: Athena’s last sectional championship came in 2007. The Trojans have reached the finals four times since, including the past two seasons that were played (2019, 2021).
Each team had a runner thrown out at the plate. Trojans center fielder Donovan Wallace threw a strike to nail Garett Wilson for the final out of the Thomas first. Mitchell Kelly then gunned down Bliss for the third out of the Athena fifth.
Nick Wood collected three hits for Thomas, including a double. For Athena, Saucke had a pair of singles and Aleks Englert drove in the lone run with a sixth-inning triple to end Sofinski’s night.