By Greg Gulas
The National Amateur Baseball Federation Sophomore World Series begins today with local entries Rizer Insurance Group and Creekside Fitness set to represent Youngstown at the 10-team, round-robin tournament in Knoxville, Tenn.
In opening-round action, Rizer (17-6), league champion and the area’s 14-and-under automatic qualifier, will take on New York’s DB Razorbacks at 10 a.m. while regional tournament champion Creekside Fitness goes up against Tennessee’s West Rebels at 4:30 p.m.
“We started the season with mixed results and after 14 games stood just 8-6 overall,” manager G.J. Senchak said. “We knew that we had to do something to rally our troops, so after getting back to the basics and playing the type of ball that we were capable of playing, the team came together, reeled off five straight wins and secured the No. 1 seed in the George Kelso Division.”
That streak enabled the team to draw a bye as they advanced to the playoffs’ semifinal round.
They carried their regular-season momentum into the playoffs, swept the Bel-Park Bulls and then faced Creekside Fitness in the championship series.
After sweeping an opening night doubleheader from Creekside to win the best-of-three championship series, they earned the league’s automatic World Series bid.
The Rizer Group has a strong Pennsylvania representation and this year they have been led by Will Gruber and Nate Marchand of Hermitage; Matt Gibson and Nick DeRosa of New Castle; Ben McKnight of Grove City and Aidan Thomson of Pittsburgh.
They enter World Series play riding a league-best nine-game winning streak.
Creekside Fitness (30-11-1) struggled to a 5-6 overall mark during early bird tournaments in late-April and early-May, but had a full complement of talent available when regular-season play began on May 12.
They won their first 10 games and swept through the regular season, finishing with a 17-1 mark to earn the top seed in the playoffs.
“The early bird tournaments were very helpful and we were ready for the regular season when both Coleman Stauffer and Josh Scheetz joined us from their high school teams,” manager Dave Stauffer said. “That, coupled with the experiences we had coming out of pre-season sparked us to that hot start,.
“We also entered the ‘Battle of the Borders Tournament’ as well and finished third out of 28 teams. It was a tournament that was comprised mostly of travel teams, so we felt really good about our overall play.”
Creekside’s squad consists of five players from Austintown; seven from Canfield and two from Boardman.
During the playoffs they defeated Shenango in a grueling three-game semifinal series, but were swept by Rizer as they failed to earn the league’s automatic NABF berth.
After posting four consecutive wins in regional play and outscoring opponents by a 35-11 count, they were able to punch a ticket to their third straight World Series.
Stauffer said his team is playing its best baseball right now.
“What I really like about this squad is the chemistry between the players. They all get along and are friends both on and off the field,” he said. “The dugout has been great all year and we always tell the players that this is a sacred place where nothing else matters so while you’re in there, sit back and enjoy the moment. They embraced that concept and remain a very unselfish group.”
Creekside is paced by Anthony Longo, a pitching workhorse who finished the season with three straight complete-game shutouts against the top three teams in the league.
Called by Stauffer “the hardest worker on the team,” Nick Bianco had a great year on mound and was just as timely at the plate as he led the team in both hits and RBIs.
Stauffer’s son, Coleman, served as captain behind the dish, and is an excellent defensive catcher and threw out more than 50 percent of the opponents trying to advance a base.
He also posted the team’s top batting average and on-base percentage.
Other players to watch include centerfielder Blake Benyo, who was second in the team in RBIs and lead-of batter Randy Smith, who was second on the team in runs and on-base percentage and considered one of the fastest players in the league.
Stauffer is also expecting contributions from second baseman Johnny Mikos, the only 13-year-old on the squad; left fielder Jared Fabry; first baseman Brennen Olesh and third baseman-shortstop Antonio Page, as well as Cole Constance, Drew Havrilla, Dom Velasquez, Tyler Dobrindt, and Josh Scheetz, all having contributed to their World Series run.
Pick-ups who have joined Creekside for the World Series include pitchers Garrison Wieland, Brandon Youngs and Joe Faber; catcher Evan Knaus and Noah Felleti, a versatile player with lots of speed.
The previous two World Series appearances for Creekside came in 2012 and 2013 under former manager Steve Leslie, going 2-2 in 2012 when the tournament was held at Pemberton Park and 1-2 last year in Altavista, Va.