Hilltoppers Advance to Baseball State Final 4
June 9, 2022 by Rich Kelly

When you reach the regionals level in any kind of tournament, execution usually becomes the defining factor. Such was the case especially the afternoon of June 2 at Thurman Munson Stadium, when neighborhood rivals Chardon and Chagrin Falls met for a third time this season.

Game photos click here.

Columbus Bishop Hartley (19-7) vs. Chardon (22-9), Fri., June10, 7 p.m. at Canal Park in Akron

Winner plays Sat., June 11 at 7 p.m. at Canal Park in Akron

When you reach the regionals level in any kind of tournament, execution usually becomes the defining factor. Such was the case especially the afternoon of June 2 at Thurman Munson Stadium, when neighborhood rivals Chardon and Chagrin Falls met for a third time this season.

After the teams split their earlier two contests in regular season action, this contest had a much higher element at stake. It was a regional semi-final tilt, with the loser ending the school year on a lower note. The Tigers jumped out to an early lead. But the Hilltoppers executed more big plays late in the game and rallied to break a tied score and claim victory, 4-1.

Both teams started the game with their top pitchers. New season strikeout record-holder Leo Fornara put his defense to work in the top of the first inning. He walked a hitter, but the other three who faced him hit the ball right at Fornara’s infielders, and they made the plays to close out the frame.

Chardon’s top pitcher, Christian Hall, also started the contest, and began things exactly the same as Fornara. Two quick outs and a walk brought up cleanup hitter Andrew Kirkpatrick. Hilltopper cleanup hitter Heath Fetchick had ended the first frame with a chopper back to Fornara for the third out, but Kirkpatrick did not duplicate the feat. Instead, he drilled a 2-0 pitch deep to right center for a double, driving Fornara home for an early lead.

Chardon tied it with a manufactured run in the third, and finally, in the sixth inning, after both teams had gone back and forth with great plays, broke the tie with a pair of runs. Then the Toppers added another run in the seventh, on the Tigers’ only real miscues on the day, to claim the win.

In the sixth, the left-handed hitting Nolan Kirsch led off with a sharp grounder down the third base line for a single. After a walk to Fetchick put two on with nobody out, Jake Barker sent a cannon-shot ground ball toward the hole between second and third. The shortstop snared the ball cleanly and flipped to second for an out, but Barker burned down the first base line to beat the relay, putting runners on the corners with one out. A wild pitch brought home Kirsch with the tie-breaker, and after Barker stole second base, Stone Fawcett wasted no time in bringing him home with a liner into the green grass of left field.

Chardon added its next run in the seventh to seal the deal, as Ethan Faber led off with a single on the infield, took second as the throw to first went wide, and moved to third as a pickoff throw hit him in the back and caromed into short left center. With one out, Hall sent a drive to center for a sacrifice fly, the scoring was complete, and the Chardon defense put the final clamps on the game.

Two diving plays — one in center by Faber, the other by second baseman Will Francis — became simple outs. And in the bottom of the seventh, after Nick Calabrese led off with a sharp single against Hall, a popup back to the CHS hurler set up the grand finale.

A sharp grounder to shortstop Hunter Greco was fielded cleanly and flipped to Francis, who relayed to first to nip Gavin Stevens for the final out.

“When you can put runners into scoring position like we did late today,” said Hilltopper Coach Brian Long, “it takes big plays to make it count. That is the difference in any game, and we feel confident in our lineup from 1-9 that we can get the big plays or hits when you need them.

“We are ready to hit when we step into the box, but Fornara is a very good pitcher, too. We just made a few more plays late, when we had to have them, both with the bats and defensively.”

With Fornara and Hall both sharp from the first pitch, it came down to big plays.

Possibly the first came in the top of the third, when Chardon scored its first run. With one out, Francis sent a grounder up the middle that the shortstop made a great diving stop on, but he could not get off a throw to first.

Then, on an 0-2 pitch, Hall took a high fastball to his left elbow, putting runners on first and second. They moved up on a wild pitch, and Kirsch sent a sharp grounder down the third base line. After a brief bobble of the ball, the throw to first nailed Kirsch, with Francis scoring on the play.

That set up the rest of the day. Hall scattered four Tiger hits while fanning five in going the distance. He walked only one.

Fornara was just as sharp much of the way. In giving up only five hits to a potent Hilltopper lineup, he fanned nine while walking three.

The walk to Fetchick in the sixth proved to be a killer.

“Getting hit made me focus more on things for a while,” Hall said. “It hurt for a bit, for sure. I was fortunate today to have my curve working well the whole game, and it helped me set up hitters for the fastball.”

Chagrin Falls Coach Mike Sweeney felt proud of his team’s season and gameplay.

“It’s a tough loss, but you have to consider we made it to the regional semifinal this season,” he said. “There are 192 teams in DII that wish they could make it here, so we did well. We didn’t get off to the best start, so I think we accomplished a great deal since then. The kids just kept working hard all the way, so they have a lot to be proud of.”

And by the time you read this article, it will be known who Chardon plays in the regional final — either Louisville or University School. What a thrilling sequel this game will provide to the school’s prolific two years on the gridiron.