By ANDREW WILLIAMS
It’s the goal of every team at the beginning of a season to win a league title.
Some hopes are more realistic than others, but championships aren’t won based on preseason expectations or talent. It takes a combination of skill, hard work, perseverance, and even a little luck to run through a conference schedule unscathed.
With a 12-0 victory against Cory-Rawson on Friday, Liberty-Benton’s baseball team took a step closer to completing that task.
The Eagles, who are 17-1 overall and 8-0 in Blanchard Valley Conference play, clinched at least a share of their first conference title since 2009 when they shared the crown with Arlington. They will travel to Leipsic Monday afternoon to take on the three-time defending BVC champion Vikings (5-11, 2-2 BVC) with an outright title on the line.
This season hasn’t been a surprise for first year Liberty-Benton coach Scott Arnold or his players. Arnold said winning the conference was something the coaches and players discussed prior to the season, and they decided to make it the focal point for the year.
“The kids made that one of their goals and they’ve done a good job so far,” Arnold said.
“We’ve got one game to take care of, but they’ve stayed focused. We’ve played in some pretty tight games and we’ve had some balls bounce our way.
“The main thing, the pitching has been phenomenal and that’s going to keep us in any game. We’ve got hits when we needed them. We’ve gotten good baserunning when we needed it, good defense as well.”
At the heart of Liberty-Benton’s success this season has been senior Jared Neiling and juniors Alex Harter and Caleb Russell.
Neiling is leading the team with a .429 batting average, and is 7-0 on the mound with a 1.16 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 421/3 innings.
Russell is sporting a 1.35 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 26 innings, while hitting .345 with 15 RBIs. Harter is batting .375 with 13 RBIs and nine stolen bases. He has a 2.33 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 27 innings.
“Coming into the year we knew we had a good pitching staff, had a lot of good players,” Neiling said. “We knew we had a good chance as long as we just kept the goal in our minds and just went out and got it.”
The Eagles have been dominant in all facets of the game and have been especially impressive in BVC competition.
The team has a combined .302 batting average, 16 errors in 432 total chances for a .963 fielding percentage and a team ERA of 1.98 in 120 innings pitched. In its eight BVC wins this season, Liberty-Benton has outscored opponents 57-15.
Arnold said Neiling will make the start on the mound Monday when the Eagles go for their first outright BVC baseball title since 1994. His success on the bump this season has earned him that right and he said he will rely on his teammates to help him get the job done.
“For me on the mound, I’m just going to go out and try to throw strikes,” Neiling said. “We have a good defense behind us so just try to keep the ball on the ground and let them make the plays. At the plate, we’ve had timely hitting all year so hopefully we can continue that on Monday.”
Despite already earning a share of the crown, Arnold and Neiling both made it clear they’re interested in a bigger prize than that.
“We have at least a share, but our goal is to win it outright,” Arnold said. “We understand it’s been quite a long time. We would not like to share that if we don’t have to.”
Said Neiling: “This year was all about getting the tradition back alive, getting L-B baseball back on the map. Really, all year this was our only goal was to win it. Now that we have a share, that’s nice, but we really do want to go out and win it outright.”
Neiling had a triple, double, single and three RBIs in Friday’s 12-0 win against Cory-Rawson.
Russell (3-0) worked five innings and did not allow a hit while striking out eight and issuing one walk.
Harter singled twice and drove in a run, Josh Ostrander singled and had an RBI and Jon Dager doubled and singled for Liberty-Benton.
Logan Cawley allowed eight earned runs on nine hits in four innings to take the loss for the Hornets (2-12, 2-5 BVC).
Cory-Rawson 000 00 — 0 0 5
Liberty-Benton 623 1x — 12 9 0
WP — Russell (3-0). LP — Cawley. top hitters: (L-B) Dager 1B, 2B; Neiling 1B, 2B, 3B, 3 RBI; Harter 2-1B, RBI; Ostrander 1B, RBI.
records: Cory-Rawson 2-12 overall, 2-5 Blanchard Valley Conference; Liberty-Benton 17-1 overall, 8-0 Blanchard Valley Conference.