The Harrison Central Huskies are venturing into uncharted baseball waters.
For the first time in the brief history of the school, the Huskies are members of the Division II Sweet 16.
Coach Justin Clifford's team will take the field at Gant Municipal Stadium in Zanesville at 2 p.m. Thursday against Vincent Warren in the regional semifinal.
"It's been pretty exciting this week," Clifford said before Tuesday's practice. "We told the kids, though, that there are going to be a lot of people ready to pat you on the back, but when Thursday comes, we're all about winning a baseball game."
The challenge on Thursday comes in the form of a Warren Warriors' squad, which is 15-9 on the season, and had to rally from a four-run deficit with two outs in the seventh to get out of the first round.
"There's always that one tournament game and I think that game (against Athens) really changed our outlook," said Warriors' head coach Mark Farr, who is in his fourth season as the head coach. "Once we rallied to win that game, we finally quit asking the question whether or not we were good enough. Our confidence the last couple of games has been tremendous."
Harrison Central hasn't breezed to the regional by any means. The 21-6 Huskies routed Buckeye Local (13-3) in six innings, but trailed 3-0 in that game. They then needed 12 innings before outlasting Carrollton in the sectional final, 8-7.
"When I was a sophomore (in high school), we beat Edison in the regional final and I had always thought that was the best high school game I'd ever seen," Clifford said. "I think that Carrollton game topped it. There were just two or three times when I thought we were done, but again, we had a guy make a play. To get this far in the tournament, you've got to be good, but you've also got to have some luck on your side."
After spotting Dover an early run, the Huskies rallied for a 6-2 victory in the district championship.
"To be honest, did I think we'd be here? No. But, I did think we had a chance to be successful," Clifford said. "We had some goals set, like winning the OVAC and the sectional. Then it just goes from there. Nothing was guaranteed for us, but our kids have stepped it up and really given us a lift. Plus, we've had a little luck on our side."
The survivor of the game will return to Zanesville on Friday to tangle with the winner of Thursday's second game, which pits West Holmes (19-8) against Waverly (22-7).
"We're focusing totally on Thursday and we'll worry about Friday after the game if we're fortunate enough to win," Clifford said.
The Huskies' road to the Elite 8 will run through senior right hander Danny Pannell, who has been the Warriors' "big-game pitcher" all season.
Pannell owns an 8-2 record and an impressive 1.86 earned run average. He's fanned 50 hitters and walked just 33.
"Danny is your normal high school pitcher," Farr said. "He throws in the low 80s and has a good curve ball. When he's throwing strikes, he's been tough to beat because we've been playing pretty good defense behind him."
Clifford was kicking around a few scenarios, but is leaning toward giving the ball to senior Rashaen Mitchell, who has been the unquestioned ace for the Huskies all spring. He won the OVAC game, the sectional opener, the Carrollton game and pitched the final few innings in relief against Dover.
"From what we've learned, (Mitchell) is going to be tough to simulate in batting practice because of his size, length and the way he throws three quarters," Farr said. "Basically, we're going to have hit the fastball, see what we can do with his off-speed stuff and hope he's a little off."
While Mitchell gets much of the publicity, the Huskies' offense has more than carried its weight.
"We've hit the ball well all year," Clifford said. "We're going to put the ball in play and make teams field it to beat us. We've done a good job, all year, of putting pressure on the other team."
Senior standout Nick Pelegreen is the team's leading hitter for the season. The Huskies' first baseman is batting around .540 for the season. Mitchell hits in the third spot and is batting better than .400.
Freshman shortstop Dustin Reddish has flashed signs of brilliance at times this spring. Senior Drew Horn will get the call at third base and bat in the fifth spot. Dalton Rutter is the Huskies' table settler in the lead-off spot and playing center field.
During the tournament, the Huskies' hottest bat has been swung by sophomore Austin Kowalski, who bats eighth and plays second. Catcher Nick Staten and designated hitter Rhett Kuryn are in the sixth and seventh spots in the order, respectively.
Freshman Kalub Mitchell rounds the starting lineup in the ninth spot in the order and in right field.
"We've received some information from a few coaches, looked around on the Internet and got a few things," Farr said. "But, really, in high school baseball, it only helps you with a couple of players. We just have to throw strikes and make plays (in the field)."
The Warriors' offense is fueled by center fielder Lance Schafer, who is batting .397 and has eight doubles, a home run and 11 stolen bases. Shortstop Ethan Estes hits .357 and has driven in 15. Catcher Gunnar Smith is a .356 hitter with two home runs and a team-high 21 RBI. Right fielder Blake Kidder actually leads the team in average at .419, but he's only played in the last 10 or so games after getting bumped up from the jayvee squad.
Designated hitter David Ryan is a .352 hitter.
"It's tough to gauge in high school baseball because one guy, out on the hill, can change anything," Clifford said. "We just have to control what we can control."
Harrison Central will be the visiting team.