By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
POLAND -- Five summers ago, a group of 11- and 12-year-old boys from Poland Community Baseball Association captured the hearts of the Valley when their baseball team came within one victory of a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Anyone who recalls the wonderful memories that team created shouldn't be surprised to know that six of those players have helped lead the Poland High baseball team to this year's regional tournament.
Friday at 2 p.m., Poland will play Tallmadge in a regional semifinal at Cene Park. The winner of that game will return Saturday at 1 p.m. to play either Canton South or Kenston for a berth in next week's state tournament.
Leading the way
Leading the way for Poland will be John Hay and David Yost, the main pitchers on the 1997 Little League team.
"They're great pitchers," Bulldogs third baseman Sean Clayton said. "I've seen them grow up -- I've seen them for six, seven years. They go out and do their job every day. They came up big for us."
Clayton, shortstop Jon Habuda, left fielder Brandon Hardin and Rick DiMuzio were teammates with Hay and Yost on Coach Tom Fender's Little League team.
"He was the [number] one and I was the [number] two," said Yost, a sophomore.
Commenting on how that experience has helped his teammates' growth, Yost said, "Coach [Steve Rohan] says that while we're the youngest team, we're also the most experienced for all we've been through in the past."
Hay, a junior, says he finds it a little funny that their roles are reversed now.
"We pitched most games," said Hay, adding that Matt Eugenio also pitched. "The way we kind of ended up doing it in the state tournament and then in the regional tournament is that Dave would pitch the first game and I would end up pitching the championship game.
"The way things work in high school, I'm pitching the semifinal [games] and Dave is pitching the final," said Hay (8-1).
Either way is OK with Hay.
"It's always been a lot of fun pitching with Dave, going back-to-back," Hay said. "We did that all through state and regional -- that was a lot of fun."
Rohan, the Bulldogs' second year coach, said Yost exceeded his hopes this year, especially in last Saturday's 9-3 win over Metro Athletic Conference rival Canfield in the district final.
"He's special," Rohan said of Yost (6-1). "He deserved to start that game and he pitched a great game. I'm excited for the kid. He's wanted this opportunity."
Canfield baseball coach Tony Ross was among those impressed.
"He did a great job getting his curveball over," Ross said of Yost. "If you can consistently get it over the plate like he did, you keep the hitter off-balance. I thought Yost did an outstanding job."
Yost said he's not surprised the Bulldogs have at least one more week of a season.
"I envisioned it," Yost said. "I expected us to be good and to get this far."
Rohan said the strength if his team begins with the arms of Hay, Yost and Cole Budinsky.
"My three best pitchers are two juniors and a sophomore. Hay has eight wins, Yost has six and Cole has five. Each has a loss, so 19-3 between the three -- that's pretty good."
Happy for teammates
Hay and Yost are happy their senior teammates get to taste the experience of being in Ohio's Sweet 16.
"The past two years, we've lost in the district championship [game] and we've been waiting to finally get over that hump," Yost said.
Hay added, "This is big to win it. This will be a lot of fun just preparing for [Friday.]"
Hay said he began playing baseball at age 6 "when everybody started. I couldn't imagine not playing baseball, unless it was because of some kind of injury."