Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University where he pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeyes from 1971 through 1974. He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league umpire for seven seasons, working for the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA). He has written for numerous websites, and for the past fourteen years has served as columnist and photo editor for The Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in Lincoln Nebraska. His interests include history, support for amateur baseball, the outdoors, and he has a music degree from Ohio State University.

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Through a miserable month of area high school baseball, there has emerged five teams that I believe must be considerable favorites to make a strong tournament run;  because they all have the same requisite…pitching!

On another cold April Saturday, with area games cancelled by the cultural rains that we see value in for the fact of them bringing those May flowers…in the absence of the games themselves I’ll share some words on what I’ve seen through the first month of baseball relative to those teams in the area that I would call favorites for post-season honors.

Teams which have a legitimate chance come three weeks of making a tournament statement in their respective divisions.  That seems funny, of course, and unfair, given that the tournament draw comes already this week.

Funny that we ask high school baseball to cram in 27 games in just six weeks of play;  and unfair for the fact that nearly every coach I’ve asked FAVORS playing in late spring and summer so games can be played in more predictable, and comfortable weather.

Phelan_Donegal_sidebar_2015_284x320Yet, while the coaches say “yes” to summer baseball, as they play in Iowa, every one of them admits that they have no administrative support for the idea…or support from the OHSAA.  Districts do not want the added scheduling headaches, expense, or conflicts with other sports in the off-season.  And athletic directors are people, too.  They want their summer vacations more than they want summer baseball.

So, even with a small sample size going into the tournament draw, I’ll share with you why I think these teams are my five presumptive favorites to reach the regional round, based on what I’ve personally seen from each of them…twice.

In no particular order:

Senior Mitch Gremling throws hard and is highly competitive for Trent Dues' Vandalia Aviators.  He'll pitch at Wright State next year,

Senior Mitch Gremling throws hard and is highly competitive for Trent Dues’ Vandalia Aviators. He’ll pitch at Wright State next year,

Division IV:  Ft. Recovery…currently sitting with an 11-6 record (2-2 in the MAC), Jerry Kaup’s team doesn’t hit a ton, doesn’t have a lot of depth in its eight field positions, but the Indians have as good a 1-2 punch from the pitching mound as any team I’ve seen.

#1 is senior Jackson Hobbs, who won 11 games last season in pitching the “purples” to the 2015 state tournament.

And #2 is sophomore Nick Thwaits, who this week simply blew past Minster in an impressive 12-strikeout, 2-hit shutout performance against that team’s best.

Hobbs doesn’t throw hard, but he throws hard enough and everything he throws moves.  He changes speeds and he throws strikes.  Everything he does is a valuable commodity for winning baseball games.

And Thwaits, for what he lacks in actual experience is just the kind of luxury you need – that added arm that throws in the high 80s and consistently around the plate.

Again, Recovery doesn’t hit home runs, but they’re very capable of putting the ball in play and pressuring opposing teams to beat them defensively.  And when you have good pitching, and a team with a lot of kids named “Homan”, you can win games like that.

Versailles has its own one-two pitching punch with Brett McEldowney (above) and sophomore Cole Niekamp.

Versailles has its own one-two pitching punch with Brett McEldowney (above) and sophomore Cole Niekamp.

Division III:  Coldwater…currently having won 15 games against three losses, the six-time champs are again a threat because they do hit the ball, they’re experienced around the eight defensive positions, and….they have pitching, led by senior Kyle McKibben who’s been impressive every time I’ve seen him this year.

There are other good arms behind him, including Dylan Thobe, Jack Hemmelgarn, and Aaron Harlamert, but Harlamert’s primary contribution is from behind home plate.  He’s one of the area’s best defensive catchers.

This team may not pitch like some they might yet see, but with Malave Bettinger, Harlamert, McKibben, Chris Post and Hemmelgarn, they’re going to get on base and score runs.  And again, if you can hold another team to 3 earned runs or less, and score 3 or more yourself, you’re going to win.

Division I:  Vandalia Butler…seen them twice and like the combination of offense, defense, experience…and pitching…that Trent Dues has again accumulated.  They’ve been to the state tournament once in his long tenure at Butler (2000), but has never been a serious threat since because they have to fight through the gauntlet of Cincinnati schools that usually come home from Columbus with the big school title…the Moellers, Elders, Lakotas, etc.

But Dues has players…and a senior pitcher named Mitch Gremling, backed by an impressive freshman arm (in Braedon Norman), that give you the idea that on any given day Butler might beat anyone in the state.

St. Henry's Mitch Stammen has the area's only perfect game this season, against Minster, but the Redskins might be an arm short to compete with the others.

St. Henry’s Mitch Stammen has the MAC’s only perfect game in modern history, against Minster, but the Redskins might be an arm short to compete with the others.

Unbeaten when we saw them ten days ago, Dues was not overly impressed with himself.  “We really have done anything yet,”  he said.  And he’s right.  He’s been there a long time and he’s seen the type of talents necessary to actually do something, starting with arms.

If you’ve got ’em, you’re a threat;  and he might have ’em.  The Aviators, based on evidence, might be a threat.

Division III:  Versailles…I’ve seen them three times and all three times were pitching gems, twice from senior Brett McEldowney and once from sophomore Cole Niekamp.

This is another team that’s accumulated a nice mix of experience, hitting, defense, and those two dependable arms that could take them past sectional and district opponents and on into the region.  Now they’ve had that before at Versailles, but never enough, even in the days of Jason Turner and Zac Richards.

But with a pair of power arms like McEldowney and Niekamp, anything can happen if you can intimidate the opposing offenses.  I’ve seen Versailles do it already this year against good teams like Coldwater.  Pitching wins games!

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Division IV:  Minster…on the strength of them winning 13 games already, and for the fact of having at least that one dominant pitching talent in Dayton recruit Josh Nixon, the two-time state champs coach by Mike Wiss can never be ruled out when he, or they, believe they have a chance.

Dayton recruit Josh Nixon gives two-time state champ Minster a mound anchor that can beat anyone on a given day.

Dayton recruit Josh Nixon gives two-time state champ Minster a mound anchor that can beat anyone on a given day.

Minster just plays like a team that believes in its legacy – like a team that remembers that on a given day Adam Niemeyer once gave them a well-pitched game against a favored opponent and that was enough because they made plays behind their pitching and found a way to score a couple of runs.

And they still play that way.

“Never in my 22 years have I seen the kind of arms that have gone to the mound against us this spring,”  said Wiss this week, moments after Ft. Recovery had set him down on an 8-inning two-hitter by Nick Thwaits.  “So I tell my kids not to hang their heads.  We just keep playing.”

And they’ve won that way before, in 2011 and 2012, against favored opponents in the district, regional, and state level.  They found a way to win.

This is not that kind of team, but with players like Pete Falk who can catch and throw, Nixon on the mound, and enough remaining who remember and believe in the legacy, anything’s possible when you have to play Minster.

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Now missing from this list are some consistent favorites from past years, Lehman, Loramie, Tipp, and in truth, some that we haven’t seen because it’s simply rained too damned much.

St. Henry, for instance. When Mike Wiss talks about the pitching performances of this rain-shortened spring he could have expounded upon the Redskins’ Mitchel Stammen, who threw the only perfect game in MAC history against the Wildcats just three weeks ago.

Lehman has a good record, but their strength of schedue worries coach Dave King;  and he admits that he doesn’t have the arms of years past.

And Anna, out of the Shelby County League, has beaten good teams, but there’s always that question about depth and experience outside your familiarity.

On any given day a team with a hot pitcher can take down a more presumptive candidate on the strength of one well-pitched game, or one well-struck baseball.  And I realize that it could happen on a given day to any of the five teams I’ve detailed.   I realize that there are teams out there that I haven’t seen, with that one pitcher on that one given day.

And every coach you talk to, besides wishing for summer baseball, will tell you that it takes some luck to make a run in the tournament.

But you can’t bank on luck.  You have to have the tangibles as evidenced by the five listed above.  You have to have that strike thrower, and on days when he can’t you have to have a plan “B” – a second strike thrower.  I’ll take the arms first, and then in a squeeze, sure, show me your legacy.

You gotta’ pitch, yes, and you gotta’ believe.

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