Not a surprise: Beechwood is really good at baseball — again

Dan Weber
Dan Weber
Dan Weber is LINK nky's sports editor-at-large. Contact him at [email protected]

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No one knows. Well, no one involved now with the Beechwood baseball program knows the answer.

How did the small school Tigers, in a town that for years didn’t have a baseball field and at a school that on occasion didn’t have one either, get so good at the game?

No one knows. They can tell you about the coaches and the players, about the first team that won the Ninth Region, the team they called “The Road Warriors” that won its way downstate after not playing a single home game. Because they didn’t have a home field.

But they had a baseball team. Like the one that finished 38-2 a couple of years ago and also went downstate.

And they still do, of course, have a team at the top. Best team in the region, no question about that, now that Covington Catholic is so young. No. 5 in the state according to the Max Preps rankings. The unbeaten Tigers have had two close games – 8-7 over Campbell County and 3-2 over Cincinnati Oak Hills, a west side program with 1,200 boys to Beechwood’s 269.

But that none of this is a surprise is the surprise. The Tigers (9-0), after winning the All “A” Classic in Northern Kentucky – again – with a 4-1 win Sunday over St. Henry in front of a large crowd at Meinken Field, had six Class A all-region players returning for this season, two of them second-team all-starters.

They expect to win. They expect to excel. And with six wins by 10 or more runs, they pretty much do. And they better. They scheduled Cincinnati/Ohio/national powerhouse Elder Tuesday in Price Hill. But this is no longer a program that travels because it doesn’t have a home.

There’s the artificial turf field between the gym and the football field now right next to “The Barn” fieldhouse, built in 2018, that can accommodate the entire team hitting indoors for batting practice a couple of hours before a road game. Both are pretty much state-of-the-art.

With three divisible batting cages and an $8,000 pitching machine, things were already humming Sunday morning for Kevin Gray’s guys who would win the veteran coach, who had spent the first decade-and-a-half at Newport Central Catholic and Ludlow, his 100th game at the Ft. Mitchell school in his four seasons since arriving in 2017 (no games played in 2020 because of Covid).

“He’ll never tell you,” one of the Tigers’ eight assistants – two for each class — piped up at the end of their post-game meeting Sunday when Kevin asked if there was anything else. There’s a reason he won’t, Kevin says: Those wins are a tribute “to the players we’ve had” – not to him.

As he tells them every year at the baseball banquet, “We coach you hard but we love you harder.”

Although maybe Kevin will have to revise that. “We tell them to take it easy on their days off and they still show up to hit,” he says. And lift. For the dozen or so varsity guys who don’t play football, that’s something that starts in September, especially for the pitchers who just seem to keep coming which may be thanks to their work with strength and conditioning staff.

At lots of places, pitchers are a hit-and-miss deal. Sometimes you have them, sometimes you don’t. Beechwood takes no chances. They find them and develop them. Sometimes they’re football players, like Mitch Berger (Class A MVP , 7-1 as a sophomore and a .400 hitter), who went the first five innings, struck out the side in the first and gave up the one run on three hits.

But then he told them it was time for him to go, saying “I’m done.” Just what Gray wanted to hear. “Way to communicate, Mitch,” he said to his pitcher in front of the team. Not that the tough junior 205-pound tailback/linebacker was all that tired, he was tired of being just a bit off and fighting it not as well as he’d have liked.

“I couldn’t find my spots,” he said with a fastball that’s been timed right at 90 miles an hour. Torin O’Shea came on to hold off St. Henry although a ball down the right field line that was less than a foot foul – with two on – could have made things interesting had it fallen in fair.

As they might have been had center fielder Nazario Pangallo not gunned down Crusader Luke Mason trying to score on a single from second after one run had already scored in the third. Not a problem, said All-Region catcher Brice Estep, a strong 215-pounder headed to Eastern Kentucky, who made the play at the plate. He knew Pangallo was going to nail him. “Yep,” he said with a big grin.

And yes, Estep, at just under 6-feet, looks like a football guy who could help the state champion Tigers. “The coaches ask me all the time,” he says. “I’m tempted,” the strong-armed, good-hands No. 3 hitter says, “but I’m not going to.” It’s baseball all the way for Estep whose summers are taken up playing travel ball for a couple of teams including one in Tennessee.

Brett Holladay, who tore his right labrum on a block against Simon Kenton in a football game in September, is working his way back after surgery and hopefully will give the Tigers that extra top arm every team needs come tournament time. Along with big lefty first baseman Tanner Jackson, who’s headed to Kentucky Wesleyan to play football, that almost rounds out the All-Region returning cast for Beechwood.

Although on this day, the poster boy for what Gray said his guys must do better, was All-Region Jackson Roseburrough, whose bases-loaded third-inning double down the left field line gave Beechwood all the runs the Tigers needed. But when Gray opened his post-game talk to his team, he challenged them: “Guess How many guys we left on base today.”

No need to guess. “Twelve,” the answer came back from a number of players. They knew. Actually they knew because Gray had told many of them, Roseburrough said.

But when he came up, Roseburrough said he knew. “I knew we had guys on base, I was up in the count . . . it felt good,” he said as he was legging out his double knowing the three guys ahead of him were all headed home.

But that’s what Gray was talking about. “Guys, we gotta’ get better,” he pleaded, “just one percent every day . . . St. Henry’s a good team and every game’s not going to be easy . . . but we’ve got to put the ball in play. There’s no reason for striking out with the bases loaded and no outs.”

And as up to date as baseball is in Ft. Mitchell these days, home isn’t exactly where the Tigers will be this week with five straight away games with just one day off Monday through Saturday to challenge them.

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