By Jim Cotter
In baseball, as is usually the case with most other sports, finishing a season better than when you started is always the most satisfying aspect of a successful season.
For the St. Joseph Pony League team, this fact could not be truer.
With expanded little league boundaries allowing for more coverage to draw players into the program, coaches Michael Wertz and Jon Franklin assembled a team of boys that had varying skill levels and for many, had never played on the same team before.
However, the camaraderie of the team grew as the season went on, ultimately ending in a tournament championship in the EI Pony League on Friday evening with a 16-5 win over Unity 1 at Ambucs Park in Urbana.
St. Joseph jumped out to an early 2-0 start to the season, but soon saw reality come into focus as they lost six of their next eight games to enter the latter part of the season 4-6.
“I thought when we were 2-0 that maybe we had something here, but then with some injuries and player absences, things leveled off and we found ourselves playing catch-up,” Wertz said after the title game on Friday of his team’s determination and never-give-up attitude.
As the regular season wound to a close, St. Joseph earned the #4 seed in the season ending tournament, and drew as their opponent Sidney, whom they had defeated twice in the regular season.
Being in the top half of the bracket had its advantages, as the winner of the game would have an extra day to sort out pitchers, as opposed to the bottom half of the bracket, who would have to play three consecutive nights to capture the championship.
Franklin was masterful at getting the pitchers sorted out, knowing the pitch count limits of each hurler to bring them back to pitch the next game, if necessary.
St. Joseph defeated Sidney for a third time 11-3 behind four pitchers enroute to the victory. Will Franklin threw 53 pitches, but due to a rule that the pitcher is allowed to finish the hitter if they go over a threshold, put him at 50 pitches, giving him another chance to pitch after a two-day rest period. J.T. Frerichs, Brennan Oleynichak and Wyatt Wertz each threw at or just under 35 pitches in the game, meaning they could come back after a one-day break, which is the margin that St. Joseph had in the bracket.
Tuscola 1 awaited St. Joseph next as the top seed in the tournament and Wertz’s team only faced them once in the season, a 7-6 loss that ended on a St. Joseph baserunning gaffe after a comeback was abruptly halted.
Oleynichak was allowed to eclipse the maximum pitch allotment in the game as Franklin rolled the dice with his other two pitchers that he was saving just in case he needed them for a third game. Frerichs also went over the limit of pitching two consecutive days, and the gamble paid off as St. Joseph knocked off the top-seeded Tuscola team 10-7 to earn a spot in the title game on Friday.
In the other semifinal matchup between Homer and Unity 1, the #2 seeded Homer team was upended 8-7 by Unity, who came in as the #3 seed. However, Unity taxed their pitchers in defeating Homer, which left them with limited arms available for the title game.
In the championship game, St. Joseph jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first innings, only to see Unity bounce back with three runs of their own in the bottom of the first to take a 3-1 lead after an inning.
Since this was the penultimate game of the season, Wertz was given the ball to start the game and max out in pitches, going as far as he could in the contest.
St. Joseph took the lead again in the top of the third on singles by Brayden Waller and Wertz, and then Franklin came up with a clutch double, scoring Wertz. Waller had already scored on a stolen base and a wild pitch. Oleynichak laced a single to center, which scored Franklin and St. Joseph had a 4-3 lead.
St. Joseph tacked on another run in the top of the fourth inning, only to watch Unity score two runs in the bottom half to tie the game at 5.
St. Joseph took advantage of the Unity pitching deficiency in the top of the fifth by breaking the game wide open and taking a 9-5 lead. St. Joseph would score once more in the sixth and six times in the seventh to capture the first Pony title for St. Joseph since they began keeping records for Urbana as the host in 2011 and maybe the first title at that level since 1982 when Jon Franklin’s dad was the coach.
Waller led the offensive attack with a perfect 4-4 at the plate, while Franklin and Oleynichak each had three hits. Wertz and speedster Davin Alvarez each had two hits and Alvarez led the team in runs batted in with three, which Oleynichak matched as well.
Franklin came on in relief to close the door and secure the championship for his team.
Members of the team who contributed at one point or another during the season were Brayden Waller, Wyatt Wertz, Will Franklin, Jake Carlson, Brennan Oleynichak, Colin Burnett, Devin Swisher, J. T. Frerichs, Cooper Kietzman, Logan Xiao, Caleb Cotter, Caleb Dwyer, Davin Alvarez, and Justice Wertz.
The St. Joseph Pony team would like to thank its sponsor China King and owner Feng Zhou for sponsoring the team and to the St. Joseph Youth Baseball League for the opportunity to play. A special thanks go out to the families of the players for the support during the season.