By Dedra Cordle
It is easy for athletes to lose sight of great accomplishments when their season ends with a loss, particularly one that made them feel as if their hearts had been ripped out of their chests. But as the players on the Grove City High School boys varsity baseball team begin to heal after coming up short in their first state championship final, the impact they have made on their storied program is starting to come back into focus.
Senior outfielder Dennis Ritlinger-Nirider says high expectations are always attached to a new season, but he added they do not set the bar at a level where they automatically believe they will make it far into a post-season run.
“Our coach would not like for us to do that,” he said.
It is not that head coach Ryan Alexander is a proponent of low expectations per se – “they are trained at a high level because they expect to compete at a high level,” he explained – but he would much rather they stick with the tried-and-true “three goal” rule.
“We set three goals for the beginning of each season,” said Alexander, a special education teacher who has been coaching the varsity team since 2009. “One goal is to win the OCC-Ohio Conference, another goal is to reach 20 wins, and the third goal is to win a district championship. Anything else after that is just icing on the cake.”
He said abiding by the three goal rule helps keep them focused on the “one game at a time” mentality but he did admit he doesn’t mind when shoulder chips are carried over into a new season if any number of them are not met.
Take, for instance, their season-ending loss last year to Lancaster High School.
It was the district championship final and the Greyhounds had not been in this position since 2017. Although evenly matched, they were confident they were going to pull off a win against the Golden Gales but lost 2-1 in an 11-inning thriller.
“We felt like we should have won that game,” said Ritlinger-Nirider. “We should have won that game.”
He said the loss left a “bad taste” in their mouth, and it propelled them to do better, to be better, this season. With an even more competitive schedule – they played multiple powerhouse schools from the south – they managed to be just that.
The first team accomplishment of the season was winning the conference and reaching that 20 game-win threshold. Then came a rematch with the Golden Gales in the Division I district championship game. It may have taken them two days to do it (inclement weather delayed the regularly scheduled game) but they came away with a 2-0 win in eight innings, propelling them to the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s regional semi-finals for the first time since 2014.
What followed, said Ritlinger-Nirider, was a “whirlwind” of nail-biting games and up-and-down emotions that saw them defeat Hilliard Darby 2-0 on June 3 and last year’s Division I state champion New Albany 2-0 the following day.
And then the school was back in the state tournament final four for the first time since back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012.
Ritlinger-Nirider was at the game in 2012 when the #1 ranked Greyhounds met the #2 ranked Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller at Huntington Park in Columbus. He said he remembers a crowd packed with fans of the Crimson and Blue, the feeling of overwhelming sadness when they lost 3-2, and a burgeoning determination that he would avenge the loss and send his beloved team to the finals when he was old enough to play the high school level.
While it was definitely a team effort, the Greyhounds did beat an upstart Mason High School 4-1 on June 10 at Canal Park in Akron and made it to their first Division I state championship final.
“It was a very special moment in our school’s history, in our program’s history and to our community,” said Alexander. “We have had some fantastic teams that have come along through the years but no one in our storied history has made it this far.
“But that’s baseball for you. It’s a game of skill, a game of inches and ultimately a game of luck. And sometimes you don’t have that luck and sometimes you do and it runs out.”
Unfortunately, he said, that is exactly what happened when the team met Sylvania Northview in the final game, losing to the Wildcats 6-1 on June 11.
“Our game is small ball and they played it against us and they played it better than us,” said Alexander. “That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
After the loss, the players were plagued by what if’s and all of their pride in the team’s accomplishments and the individual accolades were tossed to the wayside. They didn’t remember that they met all three of their seasonal goals and they certainly didn’t bask in the knowledge that they made it to the regionals, the semi-finals or their challenging division’s final game.
Eventually, those great memories and all of the good feelings attached to them started to filter back in, so much so that they can now acknowledge the history that was made – sort of.
“I think we’re starting to wrap our heads around it but it is still settling in,” said Ritlinger-Nirider.
Alexander said when it finally does, they ought to be proud of what they did as a team this season.
“We scrapped all year, we met and surpassed our goals, and we played the game the right way,” he said. “You can’t ask for anything more.”