Griffin, Jesuit baseball look back on banner season
The beginning of Jesuit's state championship journey began innocently enough with a broomstick and a plastic ball that makes Mick Abel's wicked sliders downright demoniac.
While hope springs eternal in March, state title runs start nearly nine months prior, in the dog days of June when teams cram 25 summer league games into a five-week span.
The week before the OIBA summer season started, Jesuit head coach Colin Griffin took the Crusaders to one of the high school campus' vacant lots for an afternoon of "Double Or Nothing", a game that's as simple as it sounds. Either you hit a double, or you're out. The scheme involves strategy, problem-solving and fundamental baseball principles. Even more, it was a social opportunity for the new crop of Crusaders to formally to get acquainted with one another, a chance to officially flush the displeasure of a premature second round exit to No. 13 West Albany just seven days earlier.
It was there, on those backfields, as Jesuit playfully wielded the pencil-thin, feather-light weapon, tried roguish pitching tricks and tromped around the truncated base paths, that the Class 6A championship dream crystalized. The same teaching points, the same tactics Griffin and his staff instructed in a game made for kids could apply not just in stickball, but on the biggest of state stages. In hindsight, that summer day was a precursor for what was to come, a part of the secret formula that fueled Jesuit's 2019, marathon-like 6A state title 2-1 win over Central Catholic on June 1.
"From there, our team will understand what our identity is, what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are," Griffin said. "It's really easy to show them competition is competition. We enjoy the spirit of competition. And when you're losing in backyard baseball, it's the same reason why you might be losing here. Or if you're winning in backyard baseball, it's probably the same concept. You're not swinging at bad pitches. You're not throwing the ball away or giving them extra outs. We just start growing and growing and then it all works from there."
Seniors like Will Spitznagel — who was on the varsity team for four years — Conor O'Reilly and Kellar McCarthy watched their older brothers help the Crusaders win their first state title back in 2016, picked up the leadership mantle and made it their own. There were nine seniors in all, each with a different role. Guys like Spitznagel and Joe Angeli were everyday players. Angeli could arguably be the team's most valuable player because of his three-way utility hitting, catching and handling the pitching staff. Others such as O'Reilly were instrumental off the bench, pinch running, playing stellar defense, leading the dog pound in the dugout. O'Reilly scored the game-winning run in the 6A semis against South Salem and made a big catch in extras against Central. This, after not starting most games he played in.
"He didn't have the storybook early season being a senior, but he didn't pout," Griffin said. "He stayed a true leader. He wanted to do whatever was best for the team and look what he does, he steps up and gets stuff done."
Griffin pulled Josh Daul out of the outfield because he needed the right-hander to close out games for him as a relief pitcher. Daul morphed into a truly reliable long reliever who could give the Crusaders two, three, four innings of work and slam the door on a threatening opponent. The senior pitched seven innings combined against South Salem and Central and didn't allow a run.
"Two games in a row, he was just lights out," Griffin said.
Hitting coach Dave Schoppe, pitching coach Jeff Jensen and assistant Joey Galeno were Griffin's lieutenants who he saw as equals, whose input and opinions were equally as important to the ball club. Angeli said Jensen's impact on the pitching staff was immeasurable. And Schoppe helped already great hitters like Angeli and Blair become even better.
"The kids trust in them," Griffin said. "They're really smart and they know how to connect with the kids. You put all those pieces together and you have this. I've just enjoyed being along for the ride. I give all the credit to the players and my assistants who have been unreal. They earned flat out earned it. They came to practice every day. They stayed after (practice). They worked hard. They put in extra time and did an incredible job of connecting."
Griffin is Jesuit's golden boy now, the alum who has come back to his alma mater and won not one but two titles in four years. The Crusaders, for having such lush baseball talent every season dating back decades, had never taken home a first place trophy until Griffin left Lakeridge and took the Jesuit gig, returning to a place he credits for helping shape him into the man he is today. The ever-humble 40-year-old shifted all the praise back toward his players and coaches, saying he took true enjoyment out of getting to see his team celebrate a title. Griffin's wife, Rachel, handled things at home with their young kids Ben and Ellie as Dad helped guide a group of young men back to state greatness.
"She's just incredible," Griffin said of his wife. "I can't thank her enough for being such an awesome wife. And my kids are old enough now to know if we won our lost. They know I'm gone a lot and they've been so supportive."
However, Griffin did joke he needed to keep up with the Jesuit joneses, if you will.
"When your best friends on campus are Gene Potter (boys' basketball), Tom Rothenberger (cross country), Nick Davies (track and field) and Ken Potter (football), you don't want to be the little brother that doesn't get it done in big scenarios," Griffin said with a laugh. "That's what those guys do. They win championships, so I had to step up my game."
Jesuit was the preseason prohibitive favorite to win it all and went wire-to-wire as the 6A's best. That's a feat that can't be overlooked. Teams gun for Jesuit as is, if nothing more than the name on the front of the jersey. Couple that pressure with the number one by your name, a Metro League that's always quality, a postseason filled with unexpected potholes and it was a lot to manage. Jesuit got every team's best game. But the Crusaders, who have more individual talent than anybody, bought into what was in the team's top interests, accepted roles that maybe weren't as big as they'd like, yet fulfilled those duties nonetheless.
"We all had this sort of agreement to give our best and trust one another," Griffin said. "What you saw (in the state title) was trust and belief. They were determined to come out on top."
Jesuit's dugout, better known as the dog pound and BDE fraternity, was a case study in team chemistry. So many times in tight-game situations, be it against Westview in the rivals' rubber match, at home against Southridge and South Salem in the playoffs, it was that crew of good-natured trashing talking chatterboxes that lifted Jesuit to new heights.
"I didn't want to be Captain Cliche," Griffin said. "But our concept at Jesuit is 'You do whatever you can to do your best'. Jesuit does an incredible job of teaching it's more than just the individual. We're all about supporting one another. Being the number one seed never went to our head. We knew what our game was. Our kids created a formula that we held them to. My job was once they got 'it', that they stayed on that line. We just wanted to keep them getting better and better and not get satisfied or comfortable."
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