It's "close, but no cigar" for Euclid's World Series squad

After chalking up a tense 2-1 victory over the Schaumburg (Ill.) Seminoles in their final round-robin game of the Continental Amateur Baseball Assn. (CABA) High School World Series, the players on the Euclid squad were charged up. They were bubbling in anticipation of becoming the first local team to qualify for the championship round in more than five years.

            “I’m pumped!” declared Vinnie Klun, shortly after the game ended. The versatile outfielder, who also pitches and can play the infield, has been one of the stalwarts on the Euclid High Panther team for the last several years.

            “It was exciting,” said pitcher-centerfielder Johnny Law, also one of the Panthers’ top performers, who had pulled off one of the defensive gems of the Sunday night contest at Euclid’s Paul Serra Field. Law thrilled the home crowd when he made a sensational throw from deep in the outfield to shortstop Austin Jackson to trigger a double play.

          Equally excited were all the folks connected with the team, including coaches, parents and local supporters. After all, the “Euclid Elite,” as the World Series squad was dubbed this year, had just beaten a team that had won all four of its previous tournament games, surviving an exciting pitcher’s duel in which Euclid hurler Matt Elko tossed a three-hitter.

          Moreover, the 4-2 record that the Euclid players chalked up in the round-robin phase was a dramatic improvement over last summer’s 1-5 mark. And, in a normal year, 4-2 is typically good enough to make it into the 16-team double-elimination championship round.

          But this wasn’t a normal year. Sure, there were the usual problems with thunderstorms interrupting things and forcing games to be rescheduled. But of the 64 teams entered in the tournament, 16 survived round-robin play with 6-0 or 5-1 records. (The 64 teams, by the way, set a new record for the number of entries, surpassing the old mark of 44 teams.)

          So it was a bit of a letdown when the Euclid Elite players learned that they had been reduced to spectators for the rest of the World Series event, being hosted by Euclid for the 25th consecutive year. But they had no reason to hang their heads. Their performance both on and off the field made a very positive impression on the tournament officials, their coaches, and everyone who had watched them play.

         “They played outstanding baseball. This is the best Euclid team we’ve seen in at least six or seven years,” declared Ed Carpenter, the tournament director who has shepherded the staging of the event here since 1986.

         Luke Smrdel Jr., head coach of the Euclid team, was effusive in his praise for the players. “The kids are great,” he said. “They hustle on and off the field. There is no letdown with this team. They are just great young baseball players.”

          Assistant coach Dave Chervon mentioned Vinnie Klun and Johnny Law as two of the Euclid High youngsters who turned in impressive performances. “Vinnie hit two home runs for us,” Chervon noted, “and he played a solid right field.”

           Of the 25 ballplayers on the Euclid Elite squad, eight were members of the Panther team this past spring. The others were recruited from other Northeast Ohio high school squads. Smrdel used his contacts in the high school coaching ranks to find out who the best players were on various other teams, then called those youngsters and asked if they’d like a crack at playing in the C.A.B.A. World Series. “Every kid I called jumped at the opportunity to join the Euclid team,” he noted.

          Among the recruits who turned in stellar performances were shortstop Austin Jackson and pitchers Tyler Mastrangelo and Matt Elko.

          Jackson, a young shortstop who will be starting his sophomore year at Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin this fall, delivered an all-star caliber performance. “He’s been getting at least one or two hits each game and driving in runs like crazy,” said Coach Smrdel. “He’s also making great plays in the field and has shown lots of leadership qualities.”

          Coach Chervon also had praise for the NDCL youngster. “He’s had a terrific tournament and he’s very coachable. He’s a great kid.”

          Mastrangelo, a senior at Copley High, stifled the Michigan Wolves team to preserve a 4-1 victory for the Euclid Elite in a rain-shortened round-robin game that was interrupted for about 25 minutes by a  thunderstorm. With a runner on second base, he struck out the final batter in the bottom of the fourth inning to end the soggy contest. He also ended the third inning with a strikeout.

            In that game, the Euclid Panthers’ Josh Roberts provided a spark when he smacked an RBI single in the bottom of the third to increase Euclid’s lead to 3-1.

            Elko, a senior at Berkshire, tossed a complete-game three-hitter against Schaumburg. He was cool as an ice cube in that one as he protected a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning. With a runner on second and two outs, he ended the game with a strikeout, drawing a rousing cheer from the home fans. The victory gave the Euclid Elite a 4-2 mark in round-robin play.

            Earlier in the day, the locals had beaten the Cincinnati Elite team by a 9-1 score. Euclid went 1-2 in the first three games, including a 9-1 whipping of the Northern Kentucky Timberwolves, then won three straight to come oh-so-close to cracking the Sweet Sixteen. One of the early losses came at the hands of the always-tough Bergen Beach team out of Brooklyn, N.Y., by a 17-7 score – after Euclid had taken a 7-5 early lead.

            In addition to Vinnie Klun, Johnny Law, and Josh Roberts, the Panther players who formed the core of the Euclid Elite team were: Joe Belavich, Chris Kato, DeMarcus McWilson, Matt Kohler, and Carrell Long.

           Other than those mentioned earlier, the “recruits” included: Mike Koller (West Geauga), Norbie Hongosh (St. Ignatius), Kyle Torok (Kirtland), Mike Dugan (Copley), P. J. Miller (Kirtland), James Eck (Copley), Jeff Suefer (Chardon), Mike Ellenbest (Medina), Andrew Hryn (Eastlake North), Sean Connor (Barberton), Clayton Torok (Kirtland), Hunter Handel (Green), and Cory Sharpnick (Eastlake North).

           Assisting Luke Smrdel with the coaching duties were Mike Fording, a member of the Panthers’ coaching staff, and Dave Chervon.

John Sheridan

Retired journalist. From 1963 to 1972, wrote for and edited the Euclid News-Journal, predecessor to the Sun-Journal. From 1972 to 2000, I was a writer and editor for Industry Week magazine. Also have worked for the Plain Dealer as a part-time sportswriter, covering high school sports. And I was a contributor to the previous Euclid Observer. I have lived in Euclid for almost my entire life. I am a graduate of St. Joseph High School and John Carroll University.

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Volume 2, Issue 6, Posted 4:30 PM, 08.09.2011