WILCOX — You may remember them from their trip to the Little League World Series.
The Elk-McKean All-Stars, one of the Big 30’s most successful baseball teams in recent memory, enjoyed a three-year stint of success that culminated in a 2018 Junior League World Series appearance. After moving up an age group in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic stripped Elk-McKean of not just another potential Little League World Series appearance in 2020, but the chance to compete deep into the tournament.
That group, composed of players from Ridgway, Johnsonburg, Kane and Wilcox, has since aged out of Little League eligibility. The team, however, has largely stayed together. And, this summer, they’ll compete together in a new format.
Upon first glance, you might not recognize them.
What was once Elk-McKean, at least partially, is now Wilcox American Legion Post #467. Twelve players from the team that defeated Delaware in the Junior League Eastern Regional finals to advance to 2018’s World Series will play for Wilcox in the Elk County Legion baseball league. This five-team league plays a six-week schedule throughout June and into July.
The last time this group had the chance to play together outside of spring high school ball, it fell just short of a repeat trip to the Little League World Series. The 2019 season required an elevation to Little League’s Senior Division, for 15 and 16-year-olds, after the club qualified for the Junior League tournament in the 13 and 14-year-old division a year prior.
Despite most of its roster consisting of 15-year-olds, Elk-McKean was a game away from returning to Little League’s top stage. Only a 9-8 loss to Delaware in the Eastern Regional finals prevented a repeat trip for the 2019 squad.
However, with another year of eligibility remaining for the majority of its roster, a 2020 run to the Senior League World Series seemed inevitable for Elk-McKean. Right?
Like so many other athletic opportunities across the region, nation and globe were during the pandemic, that chance was taken away.
“That whole team was going to be back the next year as 16-year-olds,” said Mike Porter, the Johnsonburg high school baseball coach who assisted head coach Casey Zimmerman on Elk-McKean. “And COVID killed it.”
Now, much of that group finds itself playing home games at Jones Township Park in Wilcox. Porter, Zimmerman and Tony Allegretto will assist head coach Scotty Zimmerman on a Legion coaching staff that looks similar to the Elk-McKean braintrust of Zimmerman, Porter, Allegretto, Russ Transue, Jason Barner and Scott Ely.
“It’s certainly a situation where the kids have realized that things they may have thought were guaranteed in the past are no longer guaranteed after last year,” Porter said. “They went into last spring thinking, we’re going to play high school ball, senior league all-stars, and it never happened. It was kind of a shock for them.”
The coaching staff doesn’t return its entire Little League World Series team, but with 12 players whose names populate both rosters, there is an Elk-McKean feel to Wilcox’s Legion lineup.
“It’s kind of like a perfect storm of kids, coaches and parents,” Porter said. “The majority of this group of kids here, for five or six summers, didn’t take vacations. Their families committed their vacations to play baseball, so wherever we were playing a tournament, that’s where we were on vacation.”
The team opened Legion play with a 4-3 walk-off win over Smethport, another top area Legion team, on Monday. While the rest of the league began play on June 2, Wilcox was forced to wait as many of its players competed deep into high school baseball playoffs for Johnsonburg, which co-operates with Ridgway.
When the Rams’ 22-1 season ended in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals, 10 Jburg players immediately transitioned to the wooden-bat summer league.
Dom Allegretto, Kaden Dennis, Jefferson Freeburg, Camron Marciniak, Collin Porter, Dawson Smiley, Dalton Stahli, Ethan Wells, Aiden Zimmerman and Luke Zimmerman eached helped Jburg to its best season since the Rams’ 2013 state championship team.
Two years ago, all 10 were Elk-McKean players. However, much like Elk-McKean, the talent isn’t confined to the eight miles of U.S. Route 219 that connect Ridgway and Johnsonburg.
Elk-McKean featured Kane’s Curt Barner, Luke Ely, Harley Morris, Carson Whiteman and Reese Novosel, as well as Ridgway’s Joe Tettis, a rising star for Elk County Catholic.
Whiteman and Novosel, two integral parts of Kane’s 2021 high school team that was edged in the Class 2A final by Johnsonburg, join the Jburg/Ridgway group in Wilcox.
Whiteman, a Gannon University baseball commit, enhances a pitching staff that was already loaded with Jburg’s arsenal of arms.
“This group of baseball players, it doesn’t matter what type of situation you put them in. They just show up to play. If we’re playing a backyard baseball game, it’s competitive. They’re just wired to compete no matter what the situation is.”
He’ll join Gabe Watts, Collin Porter and the Zimmerman brothers, among others, as pitching options for Scotty Zimmerman.
The Elk County league, which includes teams from Bradford, Emporium and Kane in addition to Wilcox and Smethport, will conclude its playoffs the second week of July. From there, the champion will advance to the Region 8 tournament in Erie.
With ample baseball experience throughout its roster, Wilcox could be poised for a regional run. Furthermore, since Legion baseball is played in an under-19 age group format, the majority of this team has at least one year of eligibility remaining after 2021.
Some will have two years of Legion eligibility. Others will have three.
While Elk-McKean will never get its original roster back, or the opportunity to play in a Senior League World Series, a new baseball home in Wilcox will provide a similar opportunity for a dozen players.
“This is a group that’s very baseball-oriented,” Porter said. “There’s a lot of wrestlers in this group that have placed at states, a lot of basketball players that are district champs, and there’s golfers. But for the majority of them, their number one sport is baseball. That’s the one sport that got stripped from them last year.”
Now, the question is: How far can they go?