Cleveland Chardon Blizzard in 2013

First-year Blaze to represent Cleveland

Newly-formed college team won Zanesville regional

By Brian Varmecky

The Cleveland Blaze will have big shoes to fill when they compete in their first ever AAABA national tournament next week. The most recent Cleveland team--the Chardon Blizzard--compiled a record of 12-6 in their 3 tournaments and finished in 4th, 3rd, and 2nd place. They also scored an elimination win over powerhouse Baltimore in 2012. With their players now aged out, however, the Blizzard no longer compete, so the Blaze will become the fifth team to represent the modern-edition of the Cleveland franchise.

First year for college-age team

Manager Joe Borkey has been coaching the Blaze since 2004, and a handful of the players on his AAABA tournament team have been competing with him that entire time through the various age groups. This is the first year for the Blaze college-aged team, but the majority of the team has been playing together for the past three years. The players hail from the eastern suburbs of Cleveland and many attend Ohio Athletic Conference schools--such as Mount Union and John Carroll--or other Division 2 and Division 3 schools.

"It's a very loose bunch of guys," said Borkey. "They're really fun to be around and they have fun doing it."

The transition from a high school team to a college team has been an easy one for Borkey, who finds that he can now better focus on game strategy.

"There's a lot of similarities [between high school and college teams], however the guys are a lot more self-sufficient now," explained Borkey. "They know what they have to do, they know the routines before the games, and they prepare themselves mentally and physically. That makes my job easier as a manager. I can go through the line-up, see who's there and try to do match-ups and that sort of thing."

With a solid system of feeder programs beneath them, the Blaze college-aged teams expect to stick around in the AAABA for many years. Interest in the program seems to be very high: there were so many players interested in the college-age team (34) that they had to split into two squads to ensure that everyone had enough playing time. The team coming to Johnstown is the Blaze Black squad, with a few pick-ups from Blaze Red due to injuries. In addition to the Great Lakes Baseball League--which is the AAABA qualifier--the Blaze also competed against opponents in the Tri-State League, Central Ohio Collegiate League, and several unlimited age teams. Their regular season record was a strong 20-9.

Won nailbiter in Zanesville regional

Cleveland qualified for the national tournament by defeating the Zanesville Junior Pioneers in a best-of-three series last week. The Blaze won the first game 2-0 but lost the second game 10-6 (click for video from WHIZ Sports). In the Sunday final, the teams exchanged leads in a closely-contested affair (click for video from WHIZ Sports).

"It was very evenly matched," said Borkey. Cleveland built a 4-0 lead but saw it disappear after a 5-run Zanesville fourth inning. They regained the lead shortly later when Bowling Green club player Tom Mulig hit a three-run home run to put the Blaze ahead 8-5. The Pioneers rallied for two runs in the final inning, but could not complete the comeback, setting the final at 8-7.

"We started falling apart a little bit defensively at [the end], but we stuck it in there and were able to pull it out," said Borkey. "It was a real nailbiter, that's for sure. They were definitely two evenly-matched teams. Either one of us could have advanced out of there." The Pioneers' loss ended one of their strongest seasons in team history, as they finished with a 31-5 record.

A brief history of the Cleveland franchise

The Cleveland franchise was originally formed in 1981 and competed through the 1995 season under the direction of Chuck Rozanski. His teams went 10-20 during that time, finishing as high as 5th place in 1991. In 2006, Harry Oschip reformed the Cleveland franchise and its representatives are 15-14 since then. Although the franchise has not won a national championship, the 2006 Allegheny Athletics and the 2011 Chardon Blizzard both won their respective regionals. Now the Blaze can add their name to the list of regional victors and begin their quest to claim the Forest City's first national championship.

"It's an honor to be a part of this. The boys are genuinely excited," said Borkey. "Usually this time of year [their enthusiasm] starts fading away, but they're playing probably the best ball they've played all year and they're the most excited I've them all year."

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