Canton boasts plenty of experience in June

Travis Butcher flung his catcher’s mask, turned around, and sprinted toward the Bowman Field backstop.

Butcher knew the wall was approaching fast, but did not care. He wanted the baseball, he wanted the catch. If it took running through a wall to record that out, so be it. About a centimeter from the wall, Butcher slid on one knee and made a splendid catch that helped Canton defeat St. John Neumann, 4-1 and capture a second straight District 4 Class A title.

That is Canton baseball.

“I honestly didn’t think I had a chance. I wasn’t even staring at the wall. I was just going for it,” Butcher said. “If it went farther I would have hit the wall but I set my goal on it and was able to catch it. We just go for it and do what we need to do.”

Butcher is just 5-foot-5, but if heart and determination are measurement forms he is a giant. An excellent catcher who skillfully handles a strong pitching staff, Butcher gives everything he has on every play.

Butcher really is the perfect reflection of his team. And that catch is a microcosm of why the Warriors have become one of District 4’s best programs.

“Seeing a play like that does give us strength. The will to win on this team is great,” first baseman Conner Route said. “That play really showed the heart on this team.”

“That’s Travis. He’s our heart and soul,” Canton coach Bob Rockwell said. “He’s as tough as nails.”

So are his teammates.

Canton (20-2) is playing in its second straight state tournament and opens its quest for a championship Monday at Mountain Top Legion Field against District 2 champion MMI Prep. The Warriors reached last year’s state final and have been just as impressive thus far in 2014.

Yes, the Warriors are talented, well-coached and fundamentally-sound. So too, are a lot of teams, especially at this point. What has helped push Canton over the top and become a district power is that drive and determination.

So many on the roster are two and three-sport athletes who have been banged around throughout the season. Those are just battle scars. They fight through the pain and keep winning.

Canton has won 14 straight games while taking nearly every opponent’s best shot. The Warriors wore a collective bull’s-eye on their backs all year but never buckled. One has to be better than good to do that. This is a team that lives up to its nickname and is as tough as it is talented.

“It’s fun to be on a team when we all play hard, we all want to be here and we all do the little things that help us win games,” Butcher said. “We just try and do whatever we can and that summarizes the whole team.”

That is the way Canton has played for years. The Warriors have been consistent winners and played in five of the last six district championships. It appeared they were doomed to play the role of the 1990s Buffalo Bills for a while, though, losing three straight championships in 2009, 2010 and 2012 in addition to a last-inning 1999 heart-breaker.

Canton made its breakthrough last year, overcoming a four-run deficit in the district final against defending Eastern Region champion Montgomery and really have not stopped since. All but three players returned from that team and this core has helped Canton go 42-5 the past two seasons while winning two league championships and two district titles.

Canton carried a lot of expectations into 2014, but past success and returning talent guarantees nothing. Defending state champion Johnsonburg also returned most of last year’s players, but did not survive districts.

Canton did. Whatever obstacles were thrown in their path throughout the regular season and districts, the Warriors hurdled them. More aptly they ran through them.

“It’s the other sports they are involved in. These kids have been here in other sports,” said Rockwell, who has won more than 300 games at Canton. “The game pressure doesn’t really get to them because they’ve been there, done that in football and wrestling and a big stage in everything, plus baseball last year. They knew what they were doing.”

Like last year, a big fan base is following Canton. The first-base section was a sea of Red during last Wednesday’s district final. As much as winning, they simply love watching their team play.

“You look up in the stands and you see all these red shirts and all these fans out there,” Route said. “It’s just a really exciting part of the year at this time of the year when you get into states and the whole town is buzzing about it. It’s just a great feeling.”