And the Mentor baseball team will win the Lake Erie League title.
OK, the Cardinals are not as certain a bet as the sun. But they have been quite hot. They have won seven consecutive LEL championships.
Coach Len Taylor’s crews have used the same recipe every year – heaping amounts of pitching, defense and small ball with just a pinch of power.
And despite a lack of offensive punch, the Cardinals have steamrolled into the Division I state semifinals three of the last four years. They fell to West Chester Lakota West in the finals a year ago.
Though Mentor boasts the largest high school student population in Ohio, the team hasn’t featured many home run hitters. In fact, the Cardinals haven’t blasted one over the fence all season. Yet they have won 16 of 20 games, including their first 10 against LEL competition.
Taylor isn’t complaining.
“We have a lot of contact hitters, but not a lot of big kids,” he says. “We’re kind of a singles- and doubles-hitting team. The focus of our guys is to put the ball in play. The big thing is that they don’t strike out. They need to make contact and move runners along. We wait for other teams to make mistakes and we take pride in not making mistakes ourselves.”
The Mentor varsity is generally quite experienced. The baseball program emphasizes keeping players at the lower levels until they are ready to strongly contribute. Most often there will be no more than one or two sophomores on the varsity.
“We try to run the kids through as they come up like it’s a minor league system,” Taylor explains. “That way we have a lot of kids who are pretty groomed for success by the time they get to us.”
The result has been annual dominance and a team experienced enough to maximize its potential in the postseason. The frustration of reaching the precipice of a state championship and falling short is growing, but Taylor believes that now that his players expect to advance deep into the playoffs, the winning of a title is merely a matter of time.
“The expectations now are not just to get there, but to win it all,” he says. “It’s all a frame of mind. The expectations are much greater now than when I took over the program. The idea now is that they can do and that they will do it. But you have to go out and clear that hurdle.”
If they’re going to do it this season, they must ride the talented left arm of senior Ryan Lavery, who struck out 12 in leading the Cardinals to a state semifinal victory over Cincinnati Elder last season. The 4-2 win avenged a defeat to Elder in the same round in 2005.
Lavery has won 21 of his last 22 decisions dating back to his sophomore year and has earned a scholarship to the University of Akron. He finished the 2007 season with a 9-0 record, 1.47 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 74 innings. He has picked up where he left off this year, going 5-0 and crafting a 1.61 ERA, though his strikeout total has decreased markedly.
In high school baseball, however, two strong starting pitchers are required for any team to advance well into the postseason. The Cardinals appear set there with senior Kevin Schindler (4-1, 2.11 ERA).
Leadoff hitter Todd Queener, who is batting .411 with 24 runs scored, paces the offense. He is followed in the order by speed demon center fielder Cory Zikesch, who is batting .297 and leads the team with 17 stolen bases. Shortstop Kenny Pascoe boasts a .330 average.
One and all played a role in leading Mentor to yet another LEL crown. But that has become an annual event. Only a state championship will give the Cardinals what they have never achieved.