Based upon this season's results for the Ursuline baseball team, it's hard to fathom that this group of players ever struggled at the high school level.
The Fighting Irish have posted a 22-2 record up to this point and clinched a berth in the Division III Massillon regional for the third straight season.
When the seniors came into the program as freshmen for the 2010 season, however, the team finished just above .500 and bowed out in the district semifinals for the second year in a row. During that season, Ursuline coach Sean Durkin started four freshmen - Sam Donko, Anthony Rohan, Harrison Finelli and Ryan Strollo - on an everyday basis.
"It started out as a struggle," Rohan said. "We were just getting pounded by teams. Now, it's the other way around - we're kind of doing the pounding. It's been a fun run. We've been on both ends of it."
While the difficulties in 2010 hurt then, the Fighting Irish earned valuable experience that year that has translated into success this year.
For the starting pitcher Donko, four years of experience has given the team some confidence and swagger that it now uses to dominate teams.
"Our freshman year, I really don't think we had the confidence to play at the varsity level," Donko said. "Over the past four years, I think that we've really grown with a lot of confidence and matured. I think it's helped us be a great team this year."
It has certainly helped Donko on the mound, as he leads a pitching staff that has posted a 2.10 ERA this spring. According to him and Rohan, there's little doubt as to the result when Donko's on the mound.
"I try to eat up the innings, try to take the pressure off our bats," Donko said. "The team thinks when I go out there that there's going to be a definite win. I feel that way, too."
After an 11-1, five-inning win over South Range in the district final on May 22, the Irish's march continues against a amiliar foe at Massillon Washington High School on Thursday at 2 p.m.: LaGrange Keystone.
The past two seasons, both Ursuline and Keystone have met in the Massillon regional semifinal, splitting the two meetings. The Bobcats took the 2011 matchup, 5-0, and the Irish beat them last season before losing to Grand Valley in the regional final.
"They're the kind of program that every year they're going to reload a little bit," Durkin said. "They're very competitive, and they're well-coached. We expect them to be a handful on Thursday."
Although these teams are 94 miles apart geographically, outfielder Rohan said the two teams have developed a rivalry over these past two years, and he actually looks forward to squaring off with the Bobcats in the rubber match.
"It's kind of like a rivalry now," Rohan said. "Their student section is great. They're right behind home plate, they're loud, they're excited... I like playing those guys. They're pretty good, so it's a good matchup."
After coming up short for three years and having dominated most teams this season, the Irish aren't content with just playing the Bobcats again - not even with making it to Columbus.
In fact, Donko didn't hesitate in saying the team's ultimate goal.
"Our whole goal this year is to win a state championship," Donko said. "It's not to go to state, not to be in the finals - it's to win."