CANTON, Ohio — After advancing to the Junior Little League World Series in 2018 and being a game away from the Senior Little League World Series a season ago, this was supposed to be their year.
With a returning core of players and another year of experience under their belts, the Elk-McKean All-Stars had all the makings of another deep summer run.
Instead, the coronavirus put a wrench in those plans and with all state and national tournaments canceled for 2020, the all-stars have been left to look for other opportunities to play.
So far, they’ve been in luck; Elk-McKean has played two scrimmages against an older Crosby Mudhens team over the last two weeks, and beginning Thursday, they’ll play kids in their own age bracket at the 17U All-American Showcase in Northeast Ohio.
“When all of the stuff was pretty restricted here in PA, I heard from my chiropractor that Ohio had pretty much opened up for baseball,” Elk-McKean head coach Casey Zimmerman said. “At the time, PA was still unsure so I got on the internet and started researching dates and then I reached out to parents who all said that they’d be willing and interested.”
Indeed, Zimmerman notes that his entire team will be making the drive down to Ohio for a multiple-day tournament that begins Thursday morning at Walsh University in North Canton.
Each team will play at least three games at various locations in Northeast Ohio including high school fields in Massillon and Stow.
The eight-team bracket features championship and consolation rounds to finish off the weekend.
Zimmerman said that he is unsure of the exact safety measures that will be in place for the tournament, but knows that coaches are asked to wear masks and parents and fans that make the trip are required to sit six-feet apart in the stands.
Still, he hasn’t heard from any of his players or their parents expressing major concerns about making the nearly three-hour drive to Ohio.
“Everybody was on board for this 100%,” Zimmerman said. “Nobody was really apprehensive or really worried. Everybody is willing to do what they need to do to be safe but at the same time get back to their normal lives and play baseball.”
THE all-stars have a leg up on some of their opponents with two full games already under their belts. Elk-McKean played two spirited contests against Crosby, a team that boasts several college athletes from the Kane, Port Allegany, Otto-Eldred and Smethport school districts.
over the last two weekends.
The final scores — 4-1 and 6-5 defeats — don’t matter nearly as much to Zimmerman as the valuable experience his kids got and actually seeing live pitching in game action.
“We are very grateful for that opportunity to play those guys,” he said. “They are an athletic team with a lot of talent with some mature, older players that sometimes we see in tournaments.
“We only have three 17-year-olds and going to another state with these teams that are loaded with 17-year-olds.”
And not only have the all-stars gone up against some talented arms during those two nine-inning games in Smethport, they get to face MLB-level talent every night at practice.
“Josh Mitchell, who went to Ridgway and got drafted by the (Kansas City) Royals, offered to come to practice and help out and share his wisdom,” Zimmerman said. “His knowledge and experience has been a godsend.”
Zimmerman added of Mitchell, who had a 3.30 ERA over 43 innings pitched for the Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks in 2019, “He has a big arm. There’s not much else we are going to see out there that’s comparable to what he throws at practice.”
MITCHELL and Zimmerman are joined in the dugout by fellow coaches Mike Porter (Johnsonburg varsity baseball head coach) and Tony Allegretto (Ridgway varsity boys basketball head coach).
The players and coaches have spent so much time together over the last few summers — rarely spending more than a few days apart during the heart of their runs — that it was like a big family reunion when they were finally able to return to practice in early June.
“We try to practice everyday and there are times where us as coaches will ask if they need a day off and they say ‘No, let’s practice ball,’” Zimmerman said with a laugh.
And now, almost a year after being on the steps of a trip to the Senior Little League World Series, that group will spend at least three days together in a big step towards a sense of normalcy.
The stakes won’t be as high, but as Zimmerman affirms, he’s sensed a strong energy and excitement level that he’s come to expect from a talented group of teenagers.
“They love the sport and love to be around each other,” he said. “They are going to be pretty excited playing on the turf fields with college umpires. It will be a great experience.”
Elk-McKean’s first game will be at 2:30 p.m. Thursday followed by contests at 11:15 a.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
All three games will be broadcast live by J.J. Michaels on 97.5 The Hound or online at www.houndcountry.com
Elk-McKean’s roster includes: Domenic Allegretto, Curtis Barner, Kaden Dennis, Luke Ely, Jefferson Freeburg, Camron Marciniak, Reese Novosel, Collin Porter, Dalton Stahli, Caden Smiley, Ethan Wells, Carson Whiteman, Aiden Zimmerman and Luke Zimmerman.