MASSILLON — Two seasons ago in the Division III regional semifinals at Carl “Ducky” Schroeder Field, Youngstown Ursuline pitcher Sam Donko was tagged for five runs by Keystone in a loss.
On Thursday, in the third straight regional semifinal between the Wildcats and Fighting Irish, Donko was dominant.
The senior struck out the first seven batters and eight of the first nine — finishing with 15 strikeouts — en route to a four-hit 6-1 win. Ursuline will compete in today’s regional final for the chance to advance to the state tournament.
Keystone (24-7) ended its season in Massillon for the third straight year, while Ursuline (23-2) improved to 3-1 against the Wildcats.
“We knew what we were in for, but I really thought we would bring it a little better at the plate than we did,” Keystone first-year coach Bert Fitzgerald said.
“He striking out eight of our first nine guys, I give him a ton of credit. He’s a heck of a pitcher.
“I saw a couple of scouting reports and a lot of people have said that Donko’s a hittable pitcher. But when you look through a lot of box scores, you can tell that he’s not so hittable. He’s a fantastic pitcher.
“Ursuline’s a rival of ours, even though we only play them once a year and it happens to be in the regionals. Even with the few mistakes we made, we weren’t going to win this game 1-0. We needed to bring it at the plate and they shut us down.”
While Donko dominated the Keystone hitters, only running into serious trouble in the fourth inning, the Ursuline batters finally broke through against Wildcats sophomore Aaron Brodnik (5-2) with a four-run fourth inning.
After Brodnik pitched out of the trouble in the second and third, the Fighting Irish sent nine batters to the plate in a fourth inning that resulted in four runs, four hits, two walks and an error.
A single and two walks loaded the bases with one out, and Ursuline coach Sean Durkin pinch-hit senior Matt Lacko for No. 9 hitter Vinnie Boerio. On a 2-1 pitch, Lacko lined a single up the middle, scoring two and ending Brodnik’s day.
“I think it was a lot of us to ask him to have him go out and throw this game,” Fitzgerald said. “He did well for the first couple of innings, but then things just got away from him in the fourth. I’d say, as a head coach, I waited a little too long to get him out of there.”
Tyler Gullett relieved and promptly gave up a line drive by Anthony Rohan. Brodnik, who moved to second base, dropped the liner. He recovered in time to throw out the runner at second, but Joel Hake scored on the error to make it 3-0.
Gullett then gave up back-to-back singles to Ryan Strollo and Donko, the latter driving in the final run of the inning.
“I just kind of thought we were too anxious early in the game,” Durkin said. “The kids were excited to be here on this stage. But once Matt Lacko came through with that big hit off the bench, I think that kind of loosened us up a little bit.
“Our kids are very confident with Sam on the mound. Once we get a lead with him on the mound, I think it kind of loosens us up offensively a bit, too.”
Pierce Young broke up the perfect game in the bottom of the fourth with a leadoff single, and back-to-back bloop singles by Gullett and Marcus Gunter scored Young for Keystone’s only run. However, Donko picked off Gullett at second after Gunter’s hit to end the threat.
Keystone didn’t get another hit until Gunter’s one-out double in the bottom of the seventh when the Wildcats trailed 6-1.
“(Donko) has spoiled us over the years,” Durkin said. “We’ve grown accustomed to him performing well in big situations. He was dominant. His location was terrific today. He was mixing it up very well and he’s just a heck of a competitor. We’re certainly going to miss him, and he did what big pitchers do in big situations today.”
The Wildcats committed four errors — two leading to Ursuline runs.
“We had that stretch this season where we went 28 innings without an error and our defense just hasn’t been as sharp since this tournament started,” Fitzgerald said. “We had a few errors against Clearview, a few more against EC and then today kind of the
“I don’t know if it was a big-stage thing or maybe it just caught up with us a little bit. Our philosophy is walks and errors will kill you. Besides running into a fantastic team, that hurt us today as well.”
Fitzgerald was proud of his team making their third straight run to regionals. With eight starters returning, a fourth straight trip is not out of the question.
“When we crossed over that 20-win plateau and we could tell we weren’t going to win (the Patriot Athletic) conference, I was a little worried that we’d have nothing to show for this season,” he said. “But we got a district title out of it and came one win short of tying the record for most wins in a season. I’m completely proud of these guys.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or email@example.com.