Cuyahoga Falls baseball edges Woodridge in walk-off thriller at Canal Park

FRANK ACETO Reporter

AKRON — It has been 21 years since the Cuyahoga Falls baseball team played in a state championship game.

Pardon Brian Shannon if he prefers to do some fact-checking.

For the first-year Black Tigers head coach, Thursday officially put an end to that more-than-two-decade drought.

“It felt like one to us,” Shannon said.

No, there wasn’t a ceremony after the game. And no, his players didn’t get to hoist a gargantuan trophy while celebrating madly.

Instead, the beleaguered Falls’ players got a chance to enjoy something few teams get to experience.

That would be a victory in their final game.

The Black Tigers earned a thrilling 2-1 victory over neighboring rival Woodridge in a socially-distant Senior Spotlight Series’ game Thursday at Canal Park in Akron.

Falls, the Division I state runner-up in 1999, made sure its only game in 2020 was special in every way imaginable.

It was particularly special for a pair of 2020 graduates, who saw their senior seasons destroyed by a deadly respiratory tract infection known as COVID-19.

Julien Harris’ run-scoring single with the bases loaded ended the game with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Ethan Tompkins, who legged out an infield single to get things started, touched home plate for the winning run.

“It was a very exciting way to end,” Shannon said. “Julien is a hard worker. He has improved so much over four years. I knew he was going to put the bat on the ball. I just hoped it was going to fall in our favor.

“Ethan is a tough kid. He’s a competitor. I can’t think of a better kid to score that run for us.”

While any loss is devastating, Bulldogs head coach Dennis Dever, was just happy to be in the dugout with some of his favorite young men.

“It was incredible,” he said. “We had a practice with these guys yesterday and a game today. It was just really special to get together because of, obviously, what had gone on this spring.”

Prior to the game, both teams honored their seniors just like they would on senior night during the spring season. Sadly for both teams, there were quite a few of them. The Black Tigers said goodbye to 14 seniors while Woodridge bid adieu to 11 seniors.

“Everybody was extremely excited, especially to get on Canal Park, especially to get one more game and especially to be able to have a senior introduction like that and a ceremony, ” Dever said. “They got the senior night that they deserved.”

Falls honored Harris, Tompkins and fellow 2020 graduates Tyler Jellison, who drove in the first run in the third, Bobby Wilson, who pitched a scoreless seventh inning to get the win, Ben Hoffman, Jack Smith, who scored the Black Tigers’ first run, Jake Stiffler, Landon Nagel, Alex Valente, Nick Golden, Jason DiNapoli, Braeden Walker, Colin Stefan-Wallace and Braunavan Arsenault, who was unable to attend.

“It was great, especially for these seniors,” Shannon said. “They really put in a lot of work over four years. I’ve been a coach with the Falls for a few years now. I’ve seen these kids grow up and I couldn’t think of a better way to send them off.”

Woodridge recognized 2020 graduates Kyle Mottice, Carson Murphy, Brandon Albright, Andrew Mekeal, Kevin Baker, Josh Kearns, Miles Ashbaugh, Mitchell Shoff, Martin Ashbaugh, Malcolm Neitenbach and Fletcher Larson.

Mekeal’s first-inning single plated Murphy for the Bulldogs’ lone run.

“Our guys knew we were going to have a pretty good team with the amount of seniors we had and the amount of really good ball players we had,” Dever said. “That was disappointing since we lost that, but thanks to Canal Park, we were allowed to come here and get one more game for these guys. It was special.”

The Black Tigers finished 4-21 in 2019 and haven’t been particularly stellar in recent years. This past season could have been a much different story if it weren’t for the pandemic.

Shannon, a 1998 Falls’ graduate who was previously an assistant coach with the team, certainly felt that way.

“It was difficult,” he said. “I was in communication with the guys as much as I could be. I knew the news was coming, but it broke my heart to have to break it to them.

“I knew how bad this team wanted it. I knew how much work they put in over the four years and it was their turn to shine.”

Woodridge, on the other hand, has enjoyed much success since Dever took over the program in 2000. The Bulldogs finished 16-8 in 2019 and have won four district championships during Dever’s tenure.

If the 2020 season would have taken place, Woodridge may have added to its Hall-of-Fame coach’s legacy.

But it was not to be.

“You didn’t know what was going to happen,” Dever said. “It just kept getting delayed and delayed and delayed so the heart just kept getting broken over and over. Finally, when they called it and it was done, we were devastated.

“A lot of these guys I had for four years, some of them for three years on the varsity so we’re pretty close. When your child hurts, you hurt for them.”

It was likewise for the opponent. It was particularly cruel to Shannon since his first season as a coach failed to materialize.

“Nobody wanted to hear it, but everybody knew,” Shannon said. “The boys were fortunate enough that they got to play some summer ball together. When the opportunity came to come here and play as a Black Tiger team, there was no way I could say no to that.”

After the game, there were no heart-to-heart conversations between Dever and his players. That’s because they already took place some 24 hours earlier.

“We talked last night,” Dever said. “It was just all the coaches letting them know how they felt about them. We just told them to go out there and have fun. If this COVID is the worst thing you’re going to have go through in your life, then you’re going to have a pretty good life because you really are going to be able to get through this.”

As for the opponent, it was a fabulous way to get some closure after nearly five months of misery. It’s very likely that Shannon’s 14 seniors will never wear a black and gold uniform again.

However, if by some miracle they’re invited to take the field one more time, Shannon knows his troops will be there in a heartbeat.

“The thing I love about this group is, I can call them in the middle of February when there’s three inches of snow on the ground and they’re ready to play,” he said. “I know these kids are always prepared to play. Any field, anywhere.”

Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, faceto@recordpub.com or @Faceto_Gannett.