COLUMBUS - Through 31 games this season the Grand Valley Mustangs had yet to meet an opponent who could shut down their potent offense, which had racked up 30 wins in 31 games.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they found such an opponent, and pitcher, in the form of Travis Clark and Lima Central Catholic, as the Thunderbirds grounded the GV offense to a halt and ended its tournament run with a 2-0 win in a Division III state semifinal at Huntington Park.
With the win, LCC (22-8) moves on to today's state championship game against Wheelersbug. The Pirates (29-2) defeated Frederickstown (23-5), 3-0, in the first semifinal Friday.
Clark was nothing short of remarkable, needing just 60 pitches to throw seven shutout innings, throwing 49 strikes and fanning three while walking none.
"We just ran into a team that made all the plays and the kid that got us to hit it on the ground all day," Mustangs and Division III Coach of the Year Russ Bell said.
While Clark was cruising through the GV lineup, Mitchell Lake was having similar success on the mound against the Thunderbirds.
Lake worked out of a bases loaded jam in the second and stranded two runners in the third and one in the fourth.
However the senior wasn't able to work out of the fifth inning unscathed. Corey O'Dowd drew a leadoff walk and Colin Stolly smacked a 1-2 pitch into left for a single.
Then, Clark looked to bunt the runners over, but when Lake fielded the bunt, the ball ended up in right field, allowing O'Dowd to score for the first run of the game.
The next batter, Connor Dee, smacked a liner to left-center that was caught by the center fielder Mason Berkey, but was deep enough to allow Stolly to score.
Two runs were more than enough on this day for the Thunderbirds.
"I think it was just one of those days where we hit the ball in places on the ground, they weren't finding the holes," Bell said. "Those kids were obviously very good and made plays all day. The other thing is, the thing he (Clark) did was pound the strike zone, until he started to get a little bit wild in the seventh inning.
"He was in control of his command the whole game."
GV looked to mount another stirring late-inning comeback, much like it had done in the bottom of the seventh against Urusline in the regional title game.
Clark went to a full count to lead off the top of seventh with Jeromy Rockafellow, but came back to strike him out looking.
Adam Moodt followed with a tapper in front of Clark that ended up going for an infield single, but Clark settled in to get Berkey and Kyle Hodge to end any comeback hopes.
"Travis Clark is a kid we rode all year," LCC coach John Schnieders said. "He did a lot today of what he's done all year which is pitch in big games for us and he was outstanding. We knew that Grand Valley is an aggressive team and that sorta played right into Travis' game plan of working ahead and changing speeds.
"He kept the ball down and the defense played spectacular behind him."
Clark improved to 9-1 on the season with the win and improved upon the microscopic 1.94 ERA of which he entered Friday's game.
The Thunderbirds senior said knowing the GV lineup was aggressive was knowledge he used to his advantage.
"I saw a lot of anxiousness and they were always trying to go after that fastball, which I got a little bit of movement on," he said. "That's just what they go after and they pound it into the ground and I just went out there and played my game.
"I'm always trying to pound the strike zone and make people get outs and that's what they did. They were very aggressive and they kept hitting into our defense and I can't be more happy."
Moodt said he felt he and his teammates struggled to lay off Clark's offspeed pitches.
"Curveballs, just straight curveballs," the first-team all-stater said of what he saw in the batter's box. "Every fastball he gave to me was high. Everything else was a curveball. Early on, we were anxious. We had to calm ourselves down, but we were hitting it... they were just making plays.
"They couldn't have had many strikeouts (three), we just hit it right to people. They seemed to shift right to where we hit. I guess that's baseball, right? I don't know... "
Schnieders said he felt the game turned on Clark's bunt.
"That was the key play of the game when he bunted and Grand Valley made one mistake and gave us an opportunity to score two runs," he said. "It's the finer points of the game that end up being the difference in these games. If you can get your guys to execute simple plays, that's going to be the difference.
"Grand Valley has had a fantastic season. They're incredibly talented, they just made one more mistake than we did today and that was the difference."
The GV offense never seriously threatened.
Stanley Sirrine reached second base with one out in the third, but was not able to advance.
The next GV baserunner to get to second was Moodt in the bottom of the seventh, and he also was stranded.
"I kept trying to preach, 'we're getting ourselves out swinging at curveballs early in the count,' " Bell said. "We're good enough to put them in play and we did. Unfortunately for us, that just meant ground ball after ground ball out. I don't think we made him work quite as much as we could've."
The loss was Lake's first of the season. He said he felt like he was struggling with his command in recent games, but was solid overall.
The senior, who was named a second-team all-state player earlier this week, scattered four hits through five innings work, striking out three and walking three while allowing two runs (one earned).
"I don't even know what to say..." Lake said of the loss. "I felt decent. Once again, the fastball was on and off, the curveball was feeling good, the knuckleball was working really good, but we made one or two mistakes and they didn't make a mistake at all.
"That's all it is."
While he certainly was hoping to be playing again today, Bell said his Mustangs have nothing to hang their heads about now that their 2012 season ends with a record of 30-2.
"It's one thing I told all the kids after the game, I said, 'I'm proud of each and every one of you,' " he said. "I've never been prouder of any group of young men in my life. The resiliency they've shown throughout this run with all the expectations that were heaped on this group from the get-go, to get down here as the first team ever (in school history).