Kevin Colley, Staff Writer
MINFORD — Over the past two seasons, Minford’s baseball program has run roughshod over their competition thanks to a dedicated group of coaches and players who have simply refused to lose under any circumstance.
There’s the 52-4 record the program has accumulated over the past two seasons. There’s the back-to-back SOC II championships the program has amassed for the first time in its history. And there’s the back-to-back Division III district titles alongside the school’s first-ever Division III regional crown last spring.
Those accomplishments can be credited to a lot of different figures.
First, you can point to the successful coaching jobs that Aaron Hopper and Anthony Knittel have done in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Then, there’s the players on the respective squads themselves.
You have the outstanding catching abilities of Luke Lindamood, who has already signed with West Virginia Tech, and the poise of Ethan Lauder and Elijah Vogelsong on the hill as the team’s co-aces. There’s also the speed of Brayden Davis and Darius Jordan in the outfield, along with the athleticism of Nathan McCormick and the timely hitting Matthew Risner, who are the team’s youngest players by grade in the lineup.
However, there are two figures on the unit who are arguably just as important to the team’s overall success as any other because of their versatility and willingness to play different positions on an everyday basis.
As players who have played at least eight different positions during their baseball careers at Minford, the unselfishness and will that Bailey Rowe and Reid Shultz have in their arsenal has been huge for the success of the Falcons, who finished the season as the state’s No. 3 ranked team in the final Division III Prep Baseball Report Ohio Poll in 2019.
The duo’s unselfish ways on the baseball diamond, however, are only topped by their love for the Minford community, the baseball program, and most importantly, their baseball brothers on and off the field of play.
“Playing for Minford has been amazing,” Shultz said. “It’s a honor to get to represent such a great community. I play for the community and my teammates and I know the other guys do, too. I think that’s why we’ve had so much success. It’s been a great run winning the conference for the first time in 50 years and making it to the Final Four. I’m glad we’ve given Minford a reason to be excited about baseball.”
Rowe echoed those sentiments.
“The Minford baseball program is one of the best programs I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of,” Rowe said. “It’s more than just a team, it’s basically a family. We work hard together on and off the field. I’m proud to be part of such an amazing team, making memories, and leaving behind a legacy for our small town. I’ve been around the guys on this team for a very long time and they’ve pushed me and have shown me how to be a leader. It’s a pleasure to play for this small community and make everybody in it proud.”
While the stress of having to learn and play different positions can prove to be too much for some, the duo relishes the lineup cards when they come out. That’s evident in the stats, where both players have proven to be more than effective throughout the 2019 campaign.
So far, Shultz and Rowe, who have combined to throw 47 2/3 innings this season, have allowed just three earned runs in their relief and spot starting work. They’ve also been productive no matter where they’ve been placed in the batting order. Shultz is hitting .353 with 18 RBIs, 16 runs while Rowe holds a .304 average alongside 19 RBIs and 17 runs.
They’ve accomplished that, arguably, because of their enthusiasm of simply playing the game. Shultz has played every position at the varsity level with the exception of center field, while Rowe, who serves as the team’s starting second baseman, has also carved out a niche in right field in addition to his pitching duties.
“Honestly, being relied on to play multiple positions can put a big weight on your shoulders but also knowing that your coaches and teammates trust you to play more than one role is an amazing feeling,” Rowe said. “Sometimes, you have to step up and play different positions depending on what is best for the team and specific games. We have quite a few different players that can play multiple positions that they are great at. I’m truly thankful that I’m able to play more than one position for my team, and for that, I have to say thank you to coach Hopper and a few other great coaches I’ve had over the years like coach Knittel, coach Doc, coach Tim Martin, and last but not least, my dad. Working so hard since I was younger to better myself as a baseball player makes me really thankful I’m able to show my full potential with the Minford baseball team.”
Shultz has followed a similar path to success.
“My dad has always told me that being able to play multiple positions makes you extra valuable to the team,” Shultz said. “I’m glad that I’ve been able to fill that role. Last year, it was fun coming in, looking at the lineup card, and seeing the position that I was going to play that day. I think we’ve both embraced that role in the fact that whatever the team needs from us that day, whether it’s pitching, playing the infield, or playing an outfield spot, that’s what we’re going to to do to the best of our abilities. Our coaches, like Bailey said, have taken the time to teach us every position so that we’re comfortable everywhere. And when the team needs us to pitch, it’s easy knowing the defense that we run out there every game is one of the best in the state. All the credit goes to those guys.”
Last year is when Minford’s program took another step.
Expected to rebuild after an 18-5 season where the Falcons lost ace pitcher and current assistant coach Jacob ‘Dot’ McCaleb, along with starting third baseman Matthew Gullett, among others, Minford not only got back to a district final, but exceeded all expectations.
The Falcons pieced together an astounding 24-3 mark, won the school’s second district championship in three seasons (2016 and 2018), and won the OHSAA Division III, Region 11 Championship with a 4-1 victory over Ridgewood, advancing to the state semifinals.
“Making it to the Final Four was a great experience,” Shultz said. “It meant a lot for us to represent the Minford community and this area. I wish we could have put up a better showing, but that has fueled us to work hard to get back. I’m glad that we got to put Minford baseball on the map and show everyone that we have a great team.”
While Hopper had to depart the unit due to a career field change that took time away from coaching, Knittel — Hopper’s top assistant last season — hasn’t missed a beat, as the unit’s outstanding 28-1 mark indicates.
“Last year, coach Hopper truly opened my eyes,” Rowe said. “He truly taught me a lot about the game of baseball. When I was growing up, I was always told I would play second base, and last year, coach Hopper gave me my first opportunity to play second. It made me realize how much it meant to have a coach believe in you and put trust in you. He was one of those coaches that you could do just about anything with. For example, during my freshman year, we had a New Year’s Party at his house to get this team closer. He brought this team closer together by teaching us how to keep fighting when you are down and to never give up. He was also a very versatile player when he played, so he could teach us just about every position there was. Now, coach Knittel is following in Hop’s footsteps as our head coach, and he is doing a great job. Even though he has brought in a whole new staff, he’s still preaching the same stuff to us that Hopper did.”
“Coach Hop took us to that next level,” Shultz said. “He showed us what it took to win and to compete on each pitch and to play as one unit. It’s hard to explain to someone how much of an impact he had on our success. Nobody saw the countless hours he spent working with us after practice. If anyone wanted to work in the cage, he was always available. It’s easy to play for a coach like that — someone who invests so much time and effort just to help us succeed. It was an honor to play for Hop. Coach Knittel was an assistant for Coach Hopper so it made for an easy transition. He has kept the same mindset and has made it easy to play under a new staff.”
Heading into Thursday’s Division III regional semifinal against Westfall, Rowe and Shultz are looking forward to enjoying the very things that they love about baseball as Minford continues a run that could include another trip to Columbus.
“My favorite quality of baseball has to be the confidence it has built up for me,” Rowe said. “Having the coaches and teammates that I’ve had throughout the years has really been a privilege. Baseball has really built up coordination and strength for me. It requires a lot of work ethic and that’s something our team is willing to put in. Being able to make our small community excited about baseball again has been a great feeling and I think it’s served as a tremendous confidence booster for all of us. It’s one thing to play the sport you love, but it’s another to make your community love it, too.”
“My favorite thing about baseball is the camaraderie with my teammates,” Shultz said. “I love playing the game with these guys. We’ve worked our tails off the past few years during the offseason, and to see that work transfer to the field has been extremely rewarding. Like Bailey said, it’s been amazing to see the community rally around our team and see them excited about baseball. I’m glad this team has given something for our community to be proud of.”
And who knows … maybe even a Division III state championship could be in the cards for the Falcons. The group is certainly fueled by last year’s 11-0 loss to Coldwater in the state semifinals.
“Moving on, I hope that we keep growing as a team and keep playing the game in the way that we are playing,” Rowe said. “We are just going to keep trying to accomplish what we did last year and then some. We have some unfinished business.”