Note: This recap appears in the Sunday, June 9 newspaper on Page B1.
On the surface, it looked like a less-than-optimal way for Austin Dunfee to enjoy his first home game as the head coach of the Southern Ohio Copperheads.
The Copperheads first-year manager saw his club walloped, 12-6, by previously winless Richmond on Friday night inside Bob Wren Stadium. Southern Ohio (1-3) never led, trailed by nine runs entering the ninth, and saw a huge part of the opening night crowd (504 officially) leave before it ended.
But Dunfee was just where he wanted to be. He was back in The Wren, and is back with the game he loves.
“Being here, coaching this team, it’s a dream come true,” Dunfee said afterward. “I grew up 20 minutes down the road.
“I used to be one of those little kids running around this ballpark watching this team.”
Dunfee is a 2008 graduate of Meigs High School and was the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division Defensive MVP his senior season. He then attended and graduated from Shawee State University (2013). And baseball has been a part of life throughout.
At Shawnee State, he still holds program records for career wins (27), strikeouts in a season (82) and complete games in a season (13). In 2011, Dunfee played for the Copperheads and capped that year with a glittering .048 ERA.
Since 2011, Dunfee logged five summers being an assistant with the Copperheads, three seasons as an assistant back at Shawnee State, and spent several springs helping coach at Meigs, Portsmouth and Southern (Meigs) High Schools.
He’s a baseball lifer. Well, he was until 2018. Last summer, Dunfee wasn’t in the dugout or on the field as the Copperheads won their first Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League title in the franchise’s 17 years of existence.
No, Dunfee was working in an auto plant in East Liberty, Ohio. And while it might be harsh to characterize the last 18 months as miserable, Dunfee said he felt less than fulfilled.
“It was the first summer since I was four years old that I wasn’t on a baseball team. It was weird,” Dunfee said.
“It was killing me inside a little bit.”
But when the previous Copperheads head coach, Phil Butler, declined to come back for 2019, Copperheads President Bill L’Heureux and Vice-President Annie Brackley reached out to Dunfee to come back to Athens.
“It took me all of five minutes to tell them yes,” Dunfee said.
Dunfee knows how it looks. He had a good job that he walked away from to coach baseball for a summer in league that isn’t known for being lucrative for the coaches that put in the hours to organize and field competitive GLSCL teams.
“There’s probably some that do call me crazy,” Dunfee said. “But you got to live passionately or you’re not really living. That’s how I feel about it.
“This is what I love to do. I’ll figure out the rest of my life after this I guess.”
The Copperheads team is still figuring out things in regards to this summer as well. Southern Ohio has dropped three of its first four games, and the pitching staff was shelled for 12 earned runs and 15 hits against the Jazz (1-3). The Snakes gave up just 10 runs in their first three games combined.
Richmond, meanwhile, found pitching for the first time this season to back another strong offensive effort. The Jazz have scored at least six runs in every game this season, but Friday was the first time in 2019 that Richmond didn’t give up at least 10 runs or walk at least eight batters.
Starter Nate Hemmerich (1-0) worked six solid innings (three runs, 7 hits allowed) and Chaney Morgan finished off the last three innings for his first save of the summer.
Mike Steffan slapped four singles to lead the Jazz at the plate, while Noah Suarez added three hits, three runs scored and two RBI. Jake Burlingame added three hits, and Brody Mariotti had three RBI, including a no-doubt solo homer to left in the fifth inning.
Southern Ohio starter Sam Wirsing (0-1) gave up five runs and eight hits over five innings to take the loss. He gave up five hits and three runs in the first two innings, including Mariotti’s two-run double as the Copperheads were behind the entire way.
Chris Gambert and Ben Rushing had two RBI apiece for Southern Ohio, and Phillip Glasser scored a pair of runs. Southern Ohio tied the game 2-2 in the bottom of the first, and then again 3-3 in the fourth on Ty Crittenberger’s RBI single.
But the Jazz took a 6-3 lead into the eight, and broke the game open with six runs against tiring reliever Nick Kaiser (7 runs, 2.1 innings). Two-run singles from Zackary Stiteler and Suarez broke the game open.
Southern Ohio scored three times in the bottom of the ninth — on RBIs from Sebastian Fabik, Gambert and Rushing — but it was too little, too late. The futile rally did give Dunfee hope that his club is as invested this summer as he is, however.
“We were down nine…those guys found a way to battle back as much as they could. They didn’t quit. I’m pretty proud of that fact,” Dunfee said.
“It got a little ugly, but those guys still had a plan at the plate. It seemed to work out for a little while.”
Dunfee, and the Copperheads, are in a state of flux. The club is still figuring out who it has, who might be joining and how all the pieces might come together. Left-hander Alex Jarrell joined the roster on Friday, and pitched 1.2 innings of scoreless relief that night. An infielder from Marshall joined the team in the middle of the game on Friday night.
“That’s how this thing works,” Dunfee said.
The Copperheads hope progress is evident during a six-game home stand. Southern Ohio was scheduled to host Richmond again on Saturday night, and then again on Sunday in a 5:30 p.m. start.
Dunfee knows it’ll be a lot of work, but there’s no place he’d rather be.
“Never in my wildest dreams I thought I’d be the head coach of this team,” he said. “It’s a blessing and an honor.”
Richmond 12, Southern Ohio 6
Richmond 210 021 060 — 12-15-1
S.Ohio 200 100 003 — 6-9-0
Richmond — Nate Hemmerich, Chaney Morgan (7) and Zackary Stiteler.
Southern Ohio — Sam Wirsing, Nick Kaiser (6), Alex Jarrell (8) and Chris Gambert.
WP — Hemmerich (1-0); LP — Wirsing (0-1); SV — Morgan (1)