By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Little League district tournaments are winding to a close all across Ohio. Soon, all eyes will be on Cederquist Park in Ashtabula as the state tournament will commence Saturday morning.
The opening ceremony will be just before the first games, which start at noon. In all, Tulino Field and Nappi Field will each host three games that day. The second set of games will start at 3 p.m. with the final games of the day taking place at 6 p.m.
The tournament is a double-elimination affair. Action continues Sunday with four games and will last through the championship game on Saturday.
The players from each team are the best from their towns.
“All of the kids on the field will be 11 and 12,” Frank Cole, Cederquist Park site manager, said. “A great way to look at it is if you took 100 kids who were 11 and 12, out of that group one of them is good enough to make one of those teams.”
Only a handful of teams have secured spots for the tourney. A number of teams will finish their district tournaments and immediately set out for Ashtabula.
“A lot of teams are still finishing up (with their district tournaments),” Cole said. “A lot of them won’t finish up until Wednesday or Thursday. We definitely do know that Hamilton is coming. Maumee and Wheelersburg will be here. That’s all we do know.”
The other team to have secured a spot is the local representative – Ashtabula, which will be playing at their home field for the duration of the state tournament.
“Honestly, they’re just astounded they won,” Cole said. “They won in the final. They beat Jefferson. It was back and forth, back and forth the entire game. They had more energy after they won than they did during the game. I know they’re very happy to be playing in the state tournament. Being 11 and 12 year olds, they probably wish they were going somewhere else just so they can stay in hotels for four or five days.”
For local fans, having a horse in the race is a great part of the tournament.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Cole said. “It’s truly great for the community, no matter which team from within the district won. People from the area can come and see a team representing the area, see what it takes to get there and see what type of competition (the locals) are playing.”
The state champion is just a handful of games from playing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
“The winner goes to Indianapolis for the regional,” Cole said. “There are only five teams there. The state champions from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio will be fighting to play in Williamsport.”
While it’s important for fans to attend the games and support every team competing, the local team could use a bit of home-field advantage.
“The kids are excited,” Cole said. “They’re a little scared about playing. It eases their minds to know the community is yelling for them and cheering them on.”
There are a few keys to a team putting itself in position to play for the state title.
“The key to any tournament, really, is pitching,” Cole said. “Because of the pitch count, and not every team has five or six pitchers, the key is scoring runs and mercying a team early. You don’t want your pitchers to get up there near the pitch count. You can also pull your pitchers early and go with a relief pitcher to eat up some innings so you don’t burn out your best. At the same time, you have to manage to win.”
More important than pitching is finding a way to secure a “W” in that opening game.
“You have to do whatever you have to do to win that first game,” Cole said. “You don’t want to lose that first game.
“From my standpoint, if you lose that first game, there’s a 10 percent chance to come back and win.”
Local fans will be able enjoy the event, even when the Ashtabula team isn’t playing.
“It’s fun because you get to see kids play baseball that are not from the area,” Cole said. “You get to meet new people. They’re excited to be here. They’re here with their kids, who are playing a sport in front of a bunch of people. There aren’t many games that are blowouts. The majority of the time, the games are very good.
“Most of the teams are fundamentally sound. They have to be or they wouldn’t be here.”
Chances are, the team that wins the championship will be fighting for that berth in Williamsport. The Ohio state champ has a history of playing extremely well in the regional.
“It’s tough to win state,” Cole said. “The team that wins is usually one of the best teams at the regional. Usually, the team that wins Ohio, 45 or 50 percent of the time goes to Williamsport.”
Cederquist is the perfect venue for a state tournament with great fields and plenty of parking.
“We’ve got room for parking and field-wise, both of them can take on water,” Cole said. “Jeff Bleil and Jim Kingston were here at noon Sunday and at midnight, they were still there. They do the grounds stuff and use up a lot of volunteer time and effort.
“I give them all the credit in the world for doing that.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.