GREEN TWP. — Cooper Shields walked to the mound like a guy who wanted to be there. Because he did.
The Ross High School senior outfielder knew he was going to be the reliever if starter Paul Schroeder had to come out, so when Rams coach Ben Toerner called for Shields for two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, he was more than ready.
Shields retired all four batters he faced Tuesday, finalizing a 3-2 victory over Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy in a Division II district baseball semifinal at Oak Hills.
“I absolutely wanted the ball,” Shields said. “It’s a little nerve-wracking coming in like that, but I like the energy. They hadn’t really been hitting Schroeder, so I thought if I just threw strikes, I would be all right.”
Shields and Ethan Hall contributed two hits apiece for the second-seeded Rams (22-4), and Keegan Nickoson, Tyler Hoover and Ethan Mills all drove in runs.
Ross will go after its third straight district championship Thursday at 5 p.m., facing Springfield Kenton Ridge at Carlisle.
“This is awesome,” Toerner said. “This is the culmination of a lot of work so far. I thought we did a lot of the little things right. We always talk about doing your job. We had a lot of guys that did their job today, and that’s what it’s going to take from here on out.
“I’m super proud of these guys. We’re trying to make a deep run. We started in September. It would be a shame to end before June.”
The Rams dropped a 4-3 decision at CHCA on April 24, and when the Eagles got the No. 1 seed at the tournament draw, Toerner decided to jump into the Cincinnati 2 sectional with them.
Toerner said his primary reason for going that route was because it would lead to a Kenton Ridge sectional opponent in the district finals rather than somebody from Cincinnati or Dayton.
“The bracket really enticed us,” Toerner said. “It didn’t hurt that CHCA was one of our four losses this year. That’s a team that we want to prove ourselves against. That’s just the mentality of this team.”
“I think coach thought this would put a chip on our shoulder, and it definitely did,” Shields said. “We wanted these guys bad. We felt like the last two years they slipped by us. We wanted some revenge.”
Ross touched CHCA ace Clayton Brock for six hits, scoring twice in the fourth inning and once in the fifth. Mills delivered a run-producing double in the fourth.
The Eagles (21-7) hampered their own cause with five errors, but they simply didn’t hit enough against Schroeder and Shields, who combined for a four-hitter.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit defensively, but we were able to get out of some jams and claw back,” CHCA coach Tony Schulz said. “Ross just had some timely hits. We had some guys in scoring position, especially early on, and just couldn’t get those guys in. That was the difference in the game.”
Schroeder appeared to be cruising heading into the bottom of the sixth, but Adrian Davis led off with a single, Caden Crawford walked and Lucas Rotello singled to load the bases.
Oakley Tippen and Brock then delivered back-to-back sacrifice flies to make it 3-2, with Rotello ending up at third. That’s when Toerner called for Shields.
“Schroeder pitched fantastic,” Toerner said. “Through the four years now that I’ve coached him, I have a pretty good eye for when he’s starting to get a little tired. It’s never easy to take the ball from him — he’ll hide it in his pocket if that’s what it takes — but I think he kind of knew the same thing. He was running out of his best stuff, and it was time to let Cooper come in and do what he does.”
Hall, a junior second baseman, said Ross had no reason to think Shields would falter.
“We had faith in him,” Hall said. “We knew what he could do. He’s an athlete. He can pitch all day.”
Hall was the only Ram to reach base three times (two singles and an error). Shields (.379), Nickoson (.379) and Hall (.373) are the team’s top three hitters.
“We’ve got to do it for the seniors,” Hall said. “Everything from here on out is for the seniors. We’re setting the bar as high as we can. You can’t put a number on us, but we’ll do the best we can.”
He said the key to success against Brock is knowing what to swing at.
“I’ve got to hand it to him. He’s a good pitcher, but we were ready,” Hall said. “You just have to find his fastball and hit it. Don’t even look at the curveball. Spit on it. Just find the fastball.”
“Our hitting is coming back around,” Toerner said. “That hasn’t been there for us of late, but through some of our practices, I think we’ve got that mentality back. It was good to see us come out and hit a guy like that pretty hard.”
The Rams lost to CHCA in last year’s regional semifinals (the Eagles then fell to eventual state champion Chaminade Julienne). In 2017, Ross was beaten by Columbus DeSales in the regional semis.
Ross and CHCA are both league champions this year, the Rams in the Southwest Ohio Conference and the Eagles in the Miami Valley Conference Scarlet Division. CHCA is losing 13 seniors to graduation.
“This will leave a sour taste in our mouths and it’s tough for our seniors, but we accomplished a lot this season,” Schulz said. “What these 13 seniors have done over the course of their careers here at CHCA speaks volumes. They’ve really set a precedent for what a baseball program should look like at an elite level. I can’t tell you how much I love this class. I’m going to miss them as people.”
WP — Paul Schroeder (5-2); LP — Clayton Brock (5-1); S — Cooper Shields (2). Records: R 22-4, C 21-7
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