The drive for another Ohio Little League 12-year-old baseball championship doesn’t figure to be an easy one for Hamilton West Side.
The locals have won nine of the last 11 state titles in this age group, but the 11-team field at the state tournament in suburban Toledo is headed by Canfield.
That doesn’t mean West Side coach Ken Coomer lacks confidence in his squad.
“I feel we’re still getting better,” Coomer said. “The thing that’s a little different is that we just started coaching this team back in June. There were other teams in the past that we had coached for two or three years. We’re still learning from these kids.”
This Hamilton team didn’t win state titles as 10s or 11s. Canfield won both of those crowns and has returned all but one player from last year’s all-star group.
West Side went 2-2 in the 11-year-old tourney last summer. Both defeats (16-10 and 11-2) came at the hands of Canfield, which suffered a loss to Maumee, then emerged from the losers’ bracket to beat Dover twice for the championship.
“It appears to be that way, unfortunately,” Canfield coach George Beck said of wearing the bull’s-eye at state this year. “But these kids do a lot of good things. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have won three district titles and two state titles so far. They work hard.”
This year’s double-elimination state event starts Saturday at Ford Park in Maumee. Four games will be played on the first day, with West Side, Dover and the Olentangy Patriots off until Sunday.
West Side will face the winner of the Maumee-Wheelersburg contest at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Also in the upper bracket are Mount Vernon and Galion. Lower-bracket teams are Canfield, Avon, Dover, Jefferson, Washington Court House and Olentangy.
“We might have to play the home team Sunday, but we feel we have a better draw than the lower bracket,” Coomer said. “We’ve just got to show up and play right.”
Coomer plans to watch every game Saturday — “I’m going to be in my lawn chair all day with a clipboard and a sore butt,” he said — before deciding who to start on the mound Sunday. His top four pitchers are right-handers Braedyn Moore, Lake Cundiff, Davis Avery and Ethan Mueller.
Moore and Cundiff didn’t pitch for the West Side 11-year-olds at state last year — Moore played up with the 12s, while Cundiff had an arm problem. Avery threw in the opener against Canfield before getting hurt.
“We’re happy with our pitchers. We’ve come a long way since last year,” Coomer said. “We’ve worked a lot on our sticks this week. We’re not fully where we need to be yet offensively. We’ve had some slow starts where we came out a little jumpy. We’ve got to be a little more patient.”
West Side won its four district games by a combined 50-2 score. Canfield was also unbeaten in its district, but only had to win two games because there were just two other teams (Poland and Boardman).
“When I first started back in 2012, we had eight teams in our 9-year-old division,” Beck said. “Now as I’m finishing up in 2017, we’re down to three teams in the 11-12. It’s a shame. I don’t know if it’s a result of kids playing other sports or kids moving on to travel ball. Who knows what they’re doing?
“It’s sad. I’m really a proactivist for Little League. I think it’s great for your community. It’s great for your kids to go play at the ballpark and hang out with their buddies. You have a lot of time to play travel ball.”
The last time West Side didn’t win a 12-year-old state title was 2014. Beck’s Canfield squad beat Hamilton in the finals that year in Cambridge.
Beck said this year’s Canfield unit has deeper pitching and is physically bigger than his 2014 team.
“We do a little bit of everything well,” Beck said. “We hit the ball well. We play pretty good defense. We’ve got a lot of pitching. What I don’t have on this team that I’ve had on previous teams is a lot of speed. We aren’t going to put that much pressure on the defense with our baserunners.
“This will probably be my last year being that my older son is completing his final year of Little League. After this, I’ll move to the other side of the fence actually start enjoying a little bit more as a spectator.”