The Crusaders experienced a little bit of everything over the past 10 years, including a pair of state championships.
To put it mildly, the Central Catholic High School baseball team experienced incredible highs and incredible lows during the last 10 years.
There were state championships in 2011 and ’15.
There were stunning early tournament exits in 2012 and ’13.
There was the puzzling departure of one of the school’s icons after the 2016 season.
There was a return to the final four in the spring of 2019 after painful tournament losses in 2017 and ’18, then COVID-19 giving the entire sports world a fat “L” this past spring.
However wild the ride, Central remains one of the best programs in the area and looks poised to continue its winning ways into the 2020s.
“The thing we always have at Central is chemistry,” Central Catholic head coach Dan Massarelli said. “I think that’s why we win games. They don’t want to let the school down. They don’t want to let each other down.”
The memories come flooding back easily for Doug Miller, the aforementioned icon who, after winning more than 700 games, three state championships and 13 district championships in 35 years as head coach at Central, left the school and reluctantly accepted a buyout when the administration would not bring him back as the athletic director.
The 2011 season was a happier time.
The Crusaders won the district championship on sophomore Jake Krupar’s walk-off home run in the ninth inning against Triway. It was Krupar’s ninth bomb of the season, setting a program record.
That was one theme of the 2011 season: Hitting. Central averaged 9.1 runs per game during the tournament.
Another theme? Joe Tann.
The senior right-hander produced one of the most remarkable tournament performances imaginable when he earned the wins in each of Central’s final four tournament games. At the state level, he threw 140 pitches in the semifinal, then — after the final was rained out and pushed back a day to give him some much-needed rest — Tann threw 59 more pitches in relief to finish off the second state title in program history. (Of course, this would not be possible with today’s pitch-count rules.) Central knocked off Cincinnati Madeira and future Boston Red Sox Andrew Benintendi.
Along with the hitting and Tann’s guts, the leadership of senior catcher Alex Grove helped set a tone.
“They were just a bunch of blue-collar workers, a bunch of tough guys,” Miller said. “Grover was the catalyst. I think he called a players-only meeting after we blew a game to Canton South. They aired it out. We went on a roll the rest of the way.”
At that point, Central had advanced to 18 consecutive district tournaments, an incredible feat of consistency in a sport that often doesn’t foster consistent performance.
Then, coming off the high of the state championship, Central was stunned in its tournament opener in 2012 by a sub-.500 Chippewa team.
Then, in 2013, it happened again. Loudonville knocked off Central in a sectional final.
After going 22-2 in the tournament from 2008-11, Central was 0-2 in its last two postseasons.
“Those two years, coming off the previous 18 years that we had, make you realize that if you stay in this game long enough, that’s going to happen,” Miller said. “It can happen to anybody in any sport at any level. It made me realize how fortunate we were for all those years.”
Central got back to a district final in 2014, losing to a talented Orrville team.
Armed with some of the best and deepest pitching in Central history, the 2015 Crusaders aimed high. The staff of Patrick Murphy, Jake Vance, Clay Davies, Dan Platek and Ryan Lindesmith rivaled the pitching of the 1997 team led by John Haupt, according to Miller.
Central allowed four total runs in its seven tournament games. The Crusaders did not commit a postseason error until one in their 4-2 win against Summit Country Day in the state final.
“We had talked in the preseason about keeping a business-like attitude, trying not to get too high or too low,” Miller said. “With the pitching we had, we didn’t hide the fact that we could do something special if we did the right things.”
It was Central’s third state championship in a nine-year span.
A year later, Miller was looking for a job. Shocked that the Central administration would take his AD job away from him, Miller stepped down as a teacher and coach.
Asked if he’s at peace with how things shook out, the 68-year-old Miller said, “I’ve moved on. I’m that kind of guy.
“You know what? For 37 years, every day, I gave all I had as a teacher, coach and athletic administrator there. I did a lot of extra duty. I gave my heart and soul to that place. And then I had to move on. That’s what you do in life. I knew I still had some years ahead of me. You can’t look back. I was able to land in a great place.”
Miller was hired as East Canton’s athletic director and baseball coach less than two months after leaving Central, and he has turned its baseball program into a winner. The Hornets won the IVC North last season, marking their first league championship since 1968.
Meanwhile, Massarelli, one of Miller’s former players and a longtime assistant coach, took over at Central.
In 2017, the top-seeded Crusaders lost a gut-wrenching district semifinal as Mooney scored seven runs (with the help of two Central errors) in the top of the seventh to rally for an 11-7 win.
The 2018 Crusaders, again seeded No. 1, were knocked out in their tournament opener in a 1-0 loss to No. 9 seed Columbiana.
“To get knocked out that early, they felt that,” Massarelli said. “It stuck with them. They wanted it that next season.”
They got it. The 2019 Crusaders, seeded No. 2 this time, knocked off No. 1 seed South Range in the district final when they rallied to win 8-6 from a 5-1 first-inning deficit.
After beating Ashtabula Edgewood and Waynedale in the regionals, the Crusaders were back at state. They lost in a semifinal when Ridgewood rallied for a 6-5 win.
Again, a deep pitching staff of Andrew Halas, Austin Beck, Drew Hallgren and Zach Wassil led the way.
“They probably weren’t the most gifted or athletic kids,” Massarelli said. “But they got along so well, they played so well together. They had timely hitting. They had great defense. They threw strikes.
“That’s what it takes to win. I learned that from Doug Miller."