LOUISVILLE — The annoying chirps had been reverberating for months.
And they only got louder and louder as the season progressed.
“We’ve heard all year, ‘We lost so many guys; we’re not going to be anything this year,’ ” Tallmadge senior Sam Seeker said. “You know what? We just have that chip on our shoulder. Man, why not us?”
The Blue Devils are thankful to see their rebellious center fielder debunk such negative vibes.
And the best part is this: Their quest to silence their critics will continue for at least another week, as third-seeded Tallmadge won its third consecutive district championship with a grueling 3-0 victory over top-seeded Norton in eight innings Wednesday in the Louisville Division II district final at Andy Aljancic Field.
The Blue Devils (17-7) advanced to play Cleveland Benedictine in a Region 5 semifinal game May 30 at The Ballpark at Hudson. The Bengals advanced with a 14-4 victory over Aurora.
As for Tallmadge, such a run seemed unlikely considering all of its harsh circumstances. The Blue Devils, who reached the state semifinals last year after winning the state title in 2017, lost 10 seniors from the previous spring. That list included their star pitchers, who are both playing collegiate ball.
None of that mattered.
The Blue Devils, despite having a number of new faces, persevered once again by doing it their way. They got strong pitching, lights-out defense and some bold base running to stun the competitive Panthers, who finished 20-2 and won the Portage Trail Conference Metro Division championship.
“We heard all the hype that we lost everybody,” Tallmadge 16th-year coach Kenny Linn said. “We felt pretty good about the guys who were still here. Obviously, there were guys that mean the world to us who moved on.
“They passed down a lot of great things to these guys to prepare themselves over the last couple years to let them win games like [Wednesday].”
The Blue Devils certainly needed all of the help they could get.
That’s because Panthers senior starting pitcher Clay Crawford was just about untouchable the entire game, using a devastating curveball and an effective fastball to keep Tallmadge’s batters off balance for much of the afternoon.
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they had their own version of a shutdown hurler in senior Todd Bangston (8-3), who allowed just four hits in eight innings and needed just 64 pitches to do it. The Panthers finished with just one hit in nine at bats with runners on base and were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
“I just kept throwing strikes and the defense was making crazy plays,” Bangston said. “Sammy had two diving catches, [sophomore right fielder] Brandon [Golubski] made two catches. The middle infield was crazy. [Senior catcher] Richie [Eyre] didn’t even have a passed ball.”
Tallmadge finally pushed a run across the plate in the top of the eighth, and it took place in one of the most unlikely ways imaginable.
Seeker drew a one-out walk and then scampered all the way to third base when Crawford’s pickoff throw went astray. Eyre tried to get Seeker home with a suicide-squeeze attempt, but his bunt attempt landed in foul territory.
On the next pitch, Seeker stunned everyone by racing toward the plate. The ball landed in Norton senior catcher Ben Aiken’s mitt just as Seeker slid. As Aiken made the tag, the ball was fumbled and Seeker got his legs across the plate safely for the pivotal first run.
Crawford got a strikeout and then walked the next batter, junior Andrew Ayres. At that point, Crawford’s day was done and Norton gave the ball to junior Evan Cefalo, who gave up a single to senior Jake Reifsnyder and then walked sophomore Orion Kroah.
That gave another sophomore first-year varsity player his chance to shine in a crucial moment, and the appropriately named Devin Norton torched his namesake with a two-run single to left to make it 3-0.
“I just had it in my mind that you had to do the job,” Norton said. “You had to get the runs in. That’s all you can do.”
Seeker made a couple of running catches in both directions and Reifsnyder charged hard and made a quick throw to get the final out to end the game.