VAN WERT — True to his teaching roots, Van Wert head coach Charlie Witten is preparing for the team’s state appearance like it is a final exam and so the Cougar skipper is taking full advantage of a full week of practice to prepare for the team’s Division II state semifinal against powerhouse Chaminade-Julienne (25-2) in Akron at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Focusing on fundamentals, bunting and covering the bunt was worked on Monday. On Tuesday, the Cougars were slated to scrimmage Coldwater, another state semifinalist that also plays Saturday, and the rest of the week will continue the trend of working on different aspects of the game.
“It’s kind of typical to do these kind of things to break up the monotony of practice for the whole week,” said Witten, about scrimmaging Coldwater. “We are not used to practicing for a whole week because we usually have games.”
Witten added that after giving the team the weekend off to celebrate the regional win, the players have come into this week with a great mindset, and the goal is to be playing their best baseball by the time Saturday rolls around.
Van Wert enters the state semifinals brimming with confidence and that is pretty much what this team came into the season with after three-straight winning seasons and a summer that saw the Van Wert ACME team having a successful summer before bowing out in the state semifinals.
The Cougars (27-2) opened the year with six wins before losing a hard-luck loss to Defiance, 5-3, April 5. Three days later the team faltered to Fairview. Witten said after the Fairview game the team needed to reevaluate in order to achieve its goals.
“We had a rough stretch in there where we lost our second game to Fairview and didn’t play very well the next night, and I remember going back to practice the next day and re-emphasized what we needed to be focused on and the kids ran with that.”
Since that loss the Van Wert has been dominating teams, producing double digits in runs six times and holding opponents to one run or less 11 times.
In the course of those wins, the Cougars also captured a share of the Western Buckeye League title, the team’s first since 1984.
“That was one of our team goals this year,” Witten said. “Yes we shared it with Defiance but that is a tremendous accomplishment when you win the WBL. Year in and year out it’s one of the best leagues in Division II in the state. It was a great accomplishment for our team and they can’t take that away from us.”
Witten added that this whole season has been building up to the tournament and winning the WBL was a huge knot in that confidence belt.
Waters said depth has been the key to the team’s success, especially from his pitching corps. In the 19-game streak the Cougar arms produced seven shutouts.
Senior Lawson Blackmore and Owen Treece are the Cougars’ top two starters. In 61 1/3 innings of work, Treece is 9-0 with a 1.14 earned run average while striking out 56 and walking 13. Blackmore, a four-year starter, is 6-1 and in his 51 1/3 innings of work struck out 75 and walked 20 while posting an 1.50 ERA.
Also in the Cougars’ stable of arms are Hayden Maples, Parker Conrad, Keaton Brown and Jake Lautzenheiser.
Going hand in hand with good pitching is a solid defense and the Cougars have shown in the postseason they are more than capable of clamping down defensively in the infield and the outfield. Throughout the tournament, fans watched as Cougar outfielders TJ Reynolds, Keaton Brown and Jalen McCracken made laser-like throws to cut down runners and the infield hold firm with minimal errors.
“The kids have been consistent all year long,” Witten said. “The defense is under an error a game for the year so that is excellent for a high school program and not just under an error, we have made some real good plays. We have had plays that have saved runs and plays at the right time.”
The 13-2 win against Vermilion showed that the Cougar offense is loaded from top to bottom. Van Wert exploded for double-digits in hits, something that has been a common occurrence throughout the season.
McCracken, the No. 9 hitter who went 4 for 4 with 4 RBI against Vermilion, leads the team in batting average with a .444 clip. Four different Cougars drove in 20 runs with Maples leading the way with 27 followed by Parker Conrad and Nathan Temple with 26. Blackmore drove in 21 runs.
“We have nine kids that have a great approach to the game and ready to hit that ball,” Witten said. “Each of them has the confidence at the plate to get the job done, and it is amazing that someone steps up each night, and it is fun to be a part of.”
Witten said he knew that this team had all the tools to have a great season but he wanted to make sure the mental makeup was up to the task of playing winning baseball day in and day out and from the beginning he worked on that as much as he worked on hitting, fielding and pitching.
“The mental stuff is something we spent more time on than in the past,” Witten said. “The idea in baseball is that you are going to fail more times than you are going to succeed at the plate so finding ways to handle that failure and the difficult times and the kids have done a great job of that and all the kids are pulling for each other. It is a great bunch of kids.”
One aspect of the team Witten said has been invaluable as far as team chemistry is that the majority of the team has been together for three years and they know how to police themselves, and the seniors have played a major role in this area.
“Probably the best thing about this group is they are able to get on each other without making enemies. They do it the right way,” Witten said. “They got on each other in the right way in the way where they understand the person is trying to help them and get better. It is a mature and cohesive group of kids and a big part of the reason where we are right now.”
Chaminade-Julienne, which is making its third straight trip to state, comes into the game riding a 16-game winning streak. The Eagles beat Wapakoneta last year to garner the state title.
Witten said he has scouted the Eagles and has talked to Redskin head coach Jason Brandt about C-J but said the focus is on getting the Cougars prepared and not making mistakes when the time comes.
“To win Saturday against Chaminade we need to do everything right,” Witten said. “We can’t give them free baseball plays. Walks, hit by pitches, errors. We need to avoid those but they are probably going to happen and how are we going to react to that. Offensively, we need to battle and get the ball in play.”