ELYRIA — When Chris Willis hit the first two batters he faced at George Day Field on Monday afternoon, Elyria coach Ed Piazza was a little concerned.
He didn’t need to be.
Willis struck out the next two batters, worked his way out of the jam unscathed and the Pioneers went on to roll 9-1 over crosstown rival Elyria Catholic on a crisp, sunny day.
Elyria improved to 1-1, while it was EC’s opener.
“He pretty much followed the scouting report after that first shaky inning,” Piazza said of Willis, a senior right-hander. “He got out of it. That’s what impressed me the most about him. Usually, mentally he falters there once he hit the first two guys but he buckled down. Really proud of him.”
EC coach Bruce Lisicky thought the whole game could have changed in the top of the first had the Panthers scored.
“Before the game, we talked about our approach when we have guys on third base with less than two outs,” Lisicky said. “We’ve got to put the ball in play and take advantage of those situations. We had second and third and no outs and your three and four hitters strike out.”
With the temperatures in the high 30s, Elyria’s defense made the plays it had to make behind Willis, who struck out five, walked four and hit three. Leighton Banjoff, EC’s All-Ohio returnee, got on base all four times and stole two bases but the Pioneers limited his effect on the game.
Cameron Engrish had the only EC hit, a one-out double in the fourth inning, but by then the Pioneers led 5-0.
“It’s cold but I just knew I had a great defense behind me,” Willis said. “I know every one of those kids were top players in our conference. I just had to throw strikes and have (the hitters) get underneath the ball. I really didn’t do anything much.”
Willis said he’s coming off a high ankle strain but battled back after putting the first two batters on.
“A little rattled at first,” Willis said. “First time on the mound in a week. Come out, throw strikes and do what the defense does.”
Elyria’s defense was sharp all day — no errors. Piazza thought that was another key.
After wriggling out of that first-inning jam — EC had runners on second and third with no outs — the Pioneers went to work offensively against Jack Laird, one of the area’s best pitchers.
Elyria pushed one run across in the bottom of the first. Hunter Osborne led off the inning with a sharp single to center and stole second. After Evan Engle lined out to center field, Michael Knapp ripped an opposite-field hit to right to drive in Osborne. Laird didn’t give up an earned run all last year in the regular season.
The Pioneers added four in the second inning off Laird and were aided by an error that possibly prevented an inning-ending double play.
Zachary Schuster led off the inning with a single to left, Max Peyton walked. With one out, time was called for Laird to take off his necklace. He walked the next batter — Colin Weekly on four pitches — and gave up a run-scoring single to Kevin Reddinger to make it 2-0.
“I don’t know if that bothered him or not,” Lisicky said of the Laird. “He had a long inning, he’s out in the cold, and then you stop and refocus. I don’t know if that had a thing to do with it or not.”
Osborne grounded to short on what appeared to be a tailor-made double play but the ball was bobbled and everybody was safe, including Peyton at home to make it 3-0. Engle rapped a 1-2 pitch over the head of left fielder Gavin Hrobot for two more runs and a 5-0 Elyria lead instead of just 2-0 with plenty of baseball left to play.
Elyria added an insurance run in the firth on Larkins’ RBI single and three more in the sixth on seeing-eye singles from pinch hitters Steven Hastings, Hunter Olsen and Gage Norris, a bases-loaded walk to Hayden Lowstetter, Willis’ sacrifice fly and an RBI single by Peyton.
Engle came in with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh inning to finish off the game by striking out Engrish.
“We had a pretty good pitcher on the mound in Jack Laird,” Engle said. “I just had to stay back, see the ball and make contact.”
As for coming in to finish off the game, Engle said the message from Piazza was short and simple.
“He said throw strikes and end it,” Engle said.