By Chris Chaney
Coming off of a United States Collegiate Athletic Association Small School Division World Series Championship in 2013, the UC Clermont Cougars baseball team could be forgiven for having a bit of a championship hangover. However, with the majority of that championship team returning, head coach Jack Harbison said that this team has had one goal in mind all season: repeat.
“Repeating has been the goal,” he said. “When we break (the huddle), instead of saying, ‘Cougars!’ we say, ‘Repeat!’”
“We have most of last year’s team back along with three new starters. We’ve been playing well so far, playing as a unit.”
Beginning their season much before most of the high schools in the area and even before the Cincinnati Reds, the Cougars are already sitting on a 19-6 record, the top ranking in the USCAA and the No. 2 spot in this week’s Power Rankings.
Their road hasn’t been quite as easy this season, Harbison said. With that trophy sitting in the school’s trophy case, a big bull’s eye has been placed upon the back of their red and black uniforms, but the coach said his team has responded to that challenge admirably.
“I don’t think we’ve felt much pressure to repeat, but that’s been our goal throughout the year,” Harbison said. “I know that it’s harder to repeat than it is to win the initial one because everyone is gunning for you now.
“(Winning the title) has helped recruiting immensely, but it’s hurt scheduling. I have trouble scheduling games now because people know we’re not an easy win. Being ranked No. 1 in the first two polls has been a testament to (our team’s) hard work because our schedule has been a lot tougher this year.”
Perhaps more impressive than the top ranking is the pair of streaks the Cougars are currently enjoying: an 11-game overall winning streak and an undefeated mark at Brian Wilson Field in Batavia.
“We actually were just able to play our first games (at Brian Wilson Field) this past weekend (April 13) because we had started a construction project to finish our dugouts, but the winter was so rough we couldn’t get anything done,” Harbison explained. “We’re far enough along now that we can put the fences back up and play there. The field is definitely home. When we finally got to play there this week (against Clark State Community College), it was like a different atmosphere. We were more comfortable.”
Clermont has played home games at Marge Schott Field on the campus of the University of Cincinnati as well as at UC Health Stadium, the home of the Florence Freedom while the construction took place.
Now, with the tournament on the horizon again, Harbison and his team are happy to play themselves into shape on their home field.
Mike Gastrich, a Milford product, has led the way for the Cougars as the coach on the field.
“Mike is our senior catcher,” Harbison said. “He has just had a tremendous season. Mike’s hitting over .400 and defensively, he’s the team. He has just been awesome.
“Ryan Mummert (Clermont Northeastern), our All-American first baseman, is a junior and he’s a stabling influence on the team.”
The pitching staff, which consists of Ryan Beard (Batavia), Chris Sunderman (Glen Este) and Nick Mason (Anderson), have taken over control of the games for the Cougars, their coach said.
At the dish, aside from Gastrich and Mummert, John Cloyd (Louisville Male), Jay Schunk (Oak Hills), Josh Reinhart (Louisville Male) and Trevor Cunningham (Milford) have all raked for Clermont. Each is hitting at over a .350 clip.
With the team playing so well and the tournament on the horizon, Harbison’s only worry is that his team stays sharp through a lull in the schedule.
“The big thing we have to do is stay sharp,” Harbison reiterated. “We’re going to run into a streak here where from the end of April until the 10th of May when we leave for the tournament, we don’t have any games.
“We’ll have to keep practicing well. We have some tough games coming up — a doubleheader against Wilmington, a doubleheader against Brescia and another doubleheader against Cumberland — those are six quality games that we’ll have to play.”
That tough stretch should make the respite between April 29 and May 10 a welcomed rest, but to get back on the horse and defend that title, Harbison said will come down to timely hitting, solid defense and a little luck.
“We’ll have to get lucky,” he said. “We have to play good defensive baseball and not make mistakes. We have to have timely hitting, but so much of that is luck. For these kids to make the correct decision every single play and to get a timely hit every time you need one, you can’t be good enough to do that. You’ve got to be a little lucky.”
Weather permitting, the Cougars were back in action on Tuesday against Ohio Mid-Western before their gauntlet of doubleheaders commenced on Thursday, April 17 against Brescia. First pitch Thursday is at 1 p.m. at Brian Wilson field.