By Greg Gulas
For the past seven years, Class B league president Scott Ruark has served as tournament director for the NABF (National Amateur Baseball Federation) Senior (18-U) and Junior (16-U) World Series.
Beginning Thursday at 9 a.m. at Bob Cene Park, it will mark the first time that both tournaments run concurrently (Ruark will also use Austintown Fitch High’s Rich Coppola Field) with Class B champion Baird Brothers and league runner-up Knightline Embroidery the two local entries among this year’s 15-team 18-U field.
This year also marks the 75th anniversary for senior division play.
“The NABF has been around for 102 years and we are really excited to be hosting both events, especially the 18-U division as we help them celebrate their 75th anniversary year,” Ruark said. “The NABF still requires that you play a certain number of games in order to be eligible for postseason play and remains the legitimate, league-style world series.”
In addition to two local entries, there are four Michigan teams (College Connect, Lincoln Park Rails, Michigan Bulls and Means Transformers), three teams from the highly-competitive Cleveland Diamond League (Ohio Longhorns, Diamond Hit Club and Hurricanes Select), three New York-based teams (West N.Y. Tigers, New York Nine and Sayo Grays), a third Ohio entry (Troy Post 43 Legends), a Canadian unit (Team Ontario) and the defending World Series champion Jackson 96ers from Mississippi.
The 96ers are coached by Derek Topik, who played for the team in 1984-85, began coaching the team in 1986 and in 1991 took over the reins of the entire organization.
He’s led them to four world series titles (1994, 1996, 2006 and last year) and three runner-up finishes (2002, 2005 and 2009) during his 33 years at the helm.
“My group this year began playing together when they were 14 years old and they’ve been a very successful unit. Players returning from last year’s squad now understand what it takes to win,“ Topik said. “We love the atmosphere at Bob Cene Park and everyone from Scott to the field crew do an excellent job of making sure everyone is accommodated. Their hospitality is second to none.”
Baird Brothers is managed by Don Pletcher and enters the tournament with a 41-7 record, going 19-3 during the regular season. Baird defeated Knightline in their best-of-five championship series 3-1 to capture the league crown — their third in a row.
“Good pitching and defense are the keys if we expect to win it all,” Pletcher said.
Pitchers that Pletcher will call upon include Youngstown State recruit Travis Perry (3-0, 1.10 ERA), Seton Hill commit Marshall McGraw (4-0, 0.72 ERA) and Andrew Russell (4-0, 0.70 ERA, who is heading into his senior year at Champion High but has already committed to Ohio University.
Offensively, center fielder Connor Rakow (.429, 18 RBIs, eight doubles and three triples), who is headed to Tallahassee Junior College and left fielder Steve Eeusano (.405, 21 RBIs, 15 doubles, five triples, two home runs), a Youngstown State recruit from Willoughby are players to watch.
Additions include left-handed pitcher Sebastian Lay of Creekside Fitness, shortstop and YSU recruit Braeden O’Shaughnessy of Dura Edge and outfielder Matt Gibson of Astro Falcons.
“Braeden helps shore up our middle infield while Sebastian is a left hander and one of the very best. He shut us out for six innings,” Pletcher said.
Tom Otto is manager and along with Jerry Hunter are franchise holders for Knightline. This is their fourth world series appearance.
They are 29-16 overall, went 15-7 overall during the regular season and are led by pitcher-outfielder Gunnar Boehm (6-2, 0.84 ERA, .354) of Ellwood City Riverside High, who is headed to Tiffin University and twirler Adam Jeannette, also from Ellwood City Riverside who was the closer this past season on Mercyhurst’s Division II World Series squad.
Offensively, spark is provided by Kole Klasic (.394) of Austintown Fitch and Tiffin University.
Key tourney additions include pitchers Dylan Keller of Howland, who played for Prospects and Brandon Fleeger of Butler, who is headed to Seton Hill.
“This isn’t our first world series appearance, so we know what awaits. We expect to do well,” Otto said. “Our roster additions give us much needed depth with the goal to be one of the final eight teams in the elimination round. Once we do that, anything can happen.”
A banquet for all players and managers-coaches will be held Wednesday at 6 p.m. at St. Lucy’s Palermo Center in Campbell.
YSU President Jim Tressel is the guest speaker with Bob Hannon serving as master of ceremonies.
“We expect well over 500 to attend and have received a great deal of help and assistance form the Mahoning County commissioners and Mahoning County Visitors Bureau,” Ruark said. “For the players, who are 15 to 18 years of age, to hear the message that President Tressel will deliver will be a memorable experience.”
Opening ceremonies are set for Thursday at 9:30 p.m. with a fireworks display, courtesy of F&V Fireworks to follow.
Knightline will take on Michigan Bulls in their tourney opener (2 p.m., Field No. 2) while Baird Brothers meets Troy Post 43 Legends at 7 p.m. (Field No. 3).
Admission is $10 per day or $30 for the entire weekend.