MASSILLON — Twenty-three.
That was the magic number for Waynedale. The Golden Bears came into Friday with 22 straight wins, needing No. 23 to become the second group in program history to break through the regional wall and make it to the state stage.
It was only fitting the player wearing No. 23 on his back would help send them there.
Josiah Raber — Waynedale’s senior No. 23 — went off for perhaps the best game of his high school career on the biggest stage of his high school career, and had plenty of help, as Waynedale beat Hawken 8-2 in the Div. III Massillon Regional final to earn a state berth.
“Watching those guys in 2016, it felt like a long shot that we’d make it to state,” Waynedale junior Timmy Short said. “Being the second team ever after those guys feels great.”
The Bears will travel to Akron’s Canal Park to face Liberty Union — and likely its star Louisville-bound pitcher Jacob Miller — Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Div. III state semifinals.
“He’s a great, great kid and a great athlete,” Waynedale coach Lucas Daugherty said of Raber. “He really is a competitor and a great teammate. For him to have a game like that on a big state, I’m not surprised, but I’m really happy for him. His hard work has paid off. He works harder than anybody.”
Raber, who is a three-sport star going to Tiffin University to play football, went 4-for-4 at the plate, including two triples, to lead hot-hitting Waynedale to a level of the playoffs only its 2016 team — the Div. III state runner-up — had reached. Raber’s biggest hit of the day came in the sixth inning, when he smashed a bases-loaded triple to give the Bears a 7-2 lead.
“He brought it right in my (sweet) spot, and I knew I wanted to drive it,” Raber said of his second triple of the day. “Obviously, with two strikes I had to swing, and I just got a hold of it, and it went a long way.
That effectively iced the game with Otto Solorzano humming on the mound.
Solorzano, who moved to Wayne County in time for his sophomore year at Waynedale, struck out 12 Hawken batters and allowed just three hits in another big-time performance.
While Solorzano may have begun as an unfamiliar face in a group that’s played together for years, he quickly adapted and was quickly embraced by his teammates who’ve mostly grown up in the southeastern corner of Wayne County.
With an infectious personality and a live left arm, Solorzano found himself at home quickly.
“He fit in right away,” Raber said. “He’s always smiling. He’s always having fun. He loves baseball. He loves being around us and we love being around him. He works really hard. He’s always trying to improve and asking questions. We love to have him around. He’s the kind of guy you want to have in your program. Obviously, he’s a good pitcher, but his attitude and his constant effort … he’s a guy we’re all glad came along.”
The combination of Solorzano and Trey Barkman has allowed just eight runs in five playoff games, effectively giving the Bears two aces heading into the state semifinals.
“I don’t even know how to explain him. He’s got dirty stuff,” said Barkman, who went 1-for-4 and scored a run, about his fellow star pitcher. “He doesn’t overpower you, but his movement is filthy. He held a really good Hawken team to two runs. … I love him. He’s a fun teammate to have.”
And while the Bears may lack a true superstar hitter, they have a full lineup of batters who can do damage, which was on full display over their two regional wins. After totaling 13 hits in its 8-4 win over Youngstown Ursuline, Waynedale had nine more against Hawken.
Waynedale No. 7, 8 and 9 batters — Ean Miller, Barkman and Braden Hershberger each had hits Friday, along with cleanup hitter Timmy Short, who went 2-for-3 with a double, a triple and an intentional walk. Playing at Massillon’s spacious Carl “Ducky” Schroeder Field, the Bears were excelled at find the gaps this week — something they hope to do again at the even more spacious Canal Park once again.
The Bears never trailed against Hawken, scoring a run in each of the first three innings as the Hawks struggled to do much of anything against Solorzano. Hawken picked up two runs in the third to make it 3-2 but didn’t get a hit the rest of the way.
“His last two innings were some of his best in the game,” Raber said. “He gave up a few hits and he didn’t let that shake him too much. He got stronger as the game went on, which is all we can ask for.”
Waynedale busted things wide open in the top of the sixth, scoring five runs, and it was a wrap.
The Hawks’ four errors didn’t help either. While not as obvious as its hitting and pitching, Waynedale’s crisp defense during its playoff run has been as important as anything.
“You want to get better as the season goes on,” Daugherty said. “As these games get bigger and you play better opponents, you want your defense to be sharper and I feel we’re getting better and better.”
With 23 wins in a row, including two regional wins by four and six runs, it’s safe to say the Bears are getting better and better at the exact right time.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Record: Baseball: Waynedale beats Hawken 8-2 to win Div. III regional title