By Dan Gilles
Westlake coach Jeff Short admitted that he was a bit spoiled by his team’s two regional berths in 1996 and 1999.
“I started coaching in 1991, and when you get there twice in the span of four years, you begin to think, ‘This ain’t so hard,’” Short said.
Between 1999 and this season, the Demons only reached the district championship game once (2003), where they lost. As Short found out, regional berths were pretty hard to do.
After 14 years, Westlake finds itself back in the Division I Regional Semifinals, thanks to its thrilling 1-0 win over top-seeded Avon in the Division I Lorain District Final at The Pipe Yard last Wednesday.
“It makes you appreciate it when you don’t get (to regionals) for a long time,” said Short, who announced prior to the postseason that he was retiring after this season. “Now, 14 years later, we finally get back there. We hadn’t even reached the district finals since 2003. You’ve got to be good and you’ve got to be lucky.
“In ’96, we were in the regional finals and we were up 8-3 going into the fifth inning. You don’t want to write the end of the story.”
Westlake began its postseason journey with a 10-6 win over Lakewood at home on May 10 in a sectional final. Then, it advanced to the district title game with a 4-2 win over Midview at Lorain’s Pipe Yard on May 15.
Westlake will meet St. Ignatius, which beat North Royalton 3-2 last Thursday, on Thursday at 5 p.m. at Case Western Reserve University. If the Demons win, they’ll play the winner of the Northwest regional game between Oregon Clay and Southview high schools on Friday back at Case Western at 5 p.m.
Short hadn’t seen Ignatius this season, but he wasn’t too worried about it.
“I’m just a big believer that whoever you play at this level is going to be good,” he said. “You’ve got to play your game. I always say, ‘If you do what you do well and you take care of yourself, that’s the only thing you can ask for.’ The biggest thing I think when I look at other teams is, ‘Do they like to run a lot?’ and ‘Does their catcher have a good arm and we’re not able to run a lot?’
“Otherwise, I think everything else cancels out and you just play.”
The win over Avon, which made up for a season-opening 9-0 loss to the Eagles, gave Westlake a school-record 21 victories. They are now 21-6 on the season, having won a share of the Southwestern Conference championship as well.
“I’m happy for these guys to get back to regionals,” Short said. “They also set a team record with 21 wins. For a Westlake baseball team, that’s pretty phenomenal. I’m super proud of these guys for what they’ve been able to accomplish, and it’s not over yet. Anything can happen.”
Last Wednesday’s district championship win was a redemption tale of sorts for Westlake senior starter Kevin Neumann (2-4).
Only winning one game and battling a hamstring problem at the start of the year, Neumann was a surprise choice by Short to start the game against the 24-3 Eagles and their ace, Anders Mahon (6-2).
Neumann made Short look like a genius, tossing a complete-game five-hit shutout against the top-seeded Eagles. He also helped his own cause with an RBI single in the top of the first that proved to be the only run he needed in a thrilling 1-0 victory.
“He was phenomenal last spring and he was our No. 1 guy,” Short said. “He came into this year with leg injury and he couldn’t throw much right away. Once the season got going, he was pretty healthy, but he just didn’t pitch well. He’s had eight appearances, and he went 0-4 in his first four appearances and we gave him one start and three relief outings in his last four appearances, and he was lights out.
“I told the coaches that I thought Kevin was the choice because he had been lights out in his four previous appearances. The way he pitched today, it’s like having two No. 1s all over again.”
Neumann coupled with his cousin Ben Neumann (5-0) on two fantastic pitching performances against two of the better pitchers in Lorain County – Mahon and Midview junior Eric Lauer. Lauer made a verbal commitment to the University of Kentucky the day before the district semifinals.
Neumann walked two and struck out eight in seven innings. One of his eight strikeouts was the last hitter of the game, when he caught Avon’s No. 2 hitter Brad Dill looking on an 0-2 pitch with runners on the corners in the bottom of the seventh.
“I’m a confident kid and I know our team’s a good team,” Neumann said. “We lost to them (9-0 in the season opener), and we wanted to get some revenge on them. This gives me a lot of confidence and our team a lot of confidence. It feels great to come out here and pitch a great game.”
A throwing error by Demons shortstop Matt Leonard on a grounder hit by Joe Mementowski with two outs gave Avon life, and Mementowski, running on the full-count pitch, was able to scamper to third on a single to left by Donny Kelly to put runners on the corners.
“My mind was in a million places,” Neumann said. “I was thinking about a lot of things, but I was able to regain my focus and pound the zone.”
Neumann battled Mahon inning for inning. In fact, if Avon catcher Matt Wentz hadn’t dropped a third strike with two outs in the bottom of the first, chances are good the game could have gone into extra innings scoreless.
With two outs, Danny Strodtbeck looked at a called third strike, but the ball got past Wentz and rolled to the backstop. Strodtbeck took first without a throw.
Jamie Lackner followed with a single to center, and Neumann, on the first pitch he saw, drove a single to left, scoring Strodtbeck for the game’s first run.
“I knew it was a big at-bat because we had runners in scoring position,” Neumann said. “I just wanted to put the ball in play and do something to help our team. We knew that, against (Mahon), every run counts.”
It was the lone blemish for Mahon, who struck out eight, scattered six hits and walked one in seven innings. He came into the game with just six walks and 66 strikeouts this season.
“We go from Lauer to Mahon, and that’s not real nice to us,” Short said. “They are two of the better pitchers, and both times, we found the way to score runs early. I think that gave us a ton of confidence in both games.
“Once we got to Lauer, we knew, ‘Hey, we can hit him. We can make something happen.’ The first inning (last Wednesday) was the same thing. We didn’t hit the ball well today, but we gloved it well and Kevin pitched his tail off. Once we got that run in the first inning, we thought, ‘Here we go again. We’re going to be OK.’”
With the Demons reaching the regionals, Short’s career is extended for at least one game or four more at the most.
“We knew this was Coach Short’s last year, and we wanted to do this for him,” Neumann said. “We’re giving him at least one more game, but we’re not ready to end this yet. We want to go as long as we can. We have a lot of momentum going into the regionals, and hopefully we can ride that momentum through regionals and into states.”
With the regional berth in tow, is Short reconsidering his retirement announcement?
“No, absolutely not,” Short said. “Someone said the other day that it seemed like I got back some of that passion and drive. But you know what? You have that passion and that drive when things are going your way and everything’s going the kids’ way. But it’s time.
“It’s time for a new chapter. I’ve been selfish for a lot of years, not in a bad way, but my wife (Julie’s) been so supportive and so accepting of me being gone all the time. Now, with my son at home, my job is to be at home.
“If we do well at regionals, will I miss it? Sure, it’s a normal reaction. Come interview me in six months and see where I’m at. But no, I won’t be coming back.”