Rockets strong in wood-bat league
The past three years, the championship in the Ohio Independent Collegiate Baseball League has gone through the Gahanna Rockets.
The Rockets won the title each of their first three seasons in the OICBL, a wood-bat summer league featuring college players ages 18 to 24.
Much like those seasons, Gahanna has stormed out of the gate in 2012, looking yet again like a formidable opponent in the nine-team league. The Rockets defeated the Otterbein Boys of Summer 17-0 on July 19 and beat the Columbus Braves 4-3 the next day before losing to Otterbein 3-0 on July 21 to drop to 9-4.
In the first game against Otterbein, Gahanna's bats were working early and often, as it built a commanding 13-0 lead after two innings. The Rockets wasted little time getting on the board, as back-to-back doubles by infielders Caleb Parker (Hartley/Case Western Reserve) and Nick Stahlman (New Albany/Ohio University) gave them a 7-0 lead after the first inning.
Andy Podalak (Pickerington North/Bluefield) hit a two-run homer to left field in the second, part of a six-run inning for the Rockets. Gahanna tacked on four more runs in the fourth.
"A game like this is a team effort," said Podalak, a fifth-year pitcher and first baseman who doubles as an assistant coach for the Rockets. "Everybody hits the ball, everybody has to score. That's how we get a big game like this and score a bunch of runs."
On the mound, right-hander Garrett Griffin (Grandview/Capital) was in control, surrendering just three hits in four innings. Darren Athey (Licking Valley/Mount Vernon Nazarene), a right-hander in his fourth season with the Rockets, struck out two in two innings before the game was called after the sixth.
"I was just focusing on throwing strikes," Athey said. "I took advantage of my off-speed pitches, the sliders and curveballs. But the main goal was just to throw strikes, and I knew my defense behind me would get the outs."
Griffin and Athey help make up a pitching staff that also includes Todd Spadaro (Grove City/Muskingum), Ray Van Boven (New Albany/Ohio State-Newark), Jeremy Finchum (Ready/Capital), Brock Trimbur (Gahanna/Sinclair Community College) and Ben Trimbur (Gahanna/Ohio University).
The Rockets, who play their home games at Blacklick Elementary School, are comprised of players from all college divisions, with each player looking to improve his game for his college team and any potential professional seasons that lie ahead.
"This league is designed for any of them," coach Ed Weston said. "Most of us have Division III players, a few Division IIs and a few Division Is. I have even had a few players get drafted."
Outfielder Patrick Ross (Gahanna/Notre Dame College) sees benefits in the OICBL allowing only wood bats.
"For the next level, it prepares you a lot, just getting experience with that (wood bat)," said Ross, who is in his third season with the Rockets. "As far as school ball goes, it's really good, especially with the new bats that are a lot weaker, a lot more like wood bats. So it helps with school ball as well."
In addition to using wood bats, Weston believes the OICBL provides solid competition.
"The positive thing is, this is good baseball," he said. "Once players cross the line to go on the field, they know how to play."
"The talent is really the same that we play in school ball," Ross said. "The biggest thing is keeping the rust off, getting live at-bats and live looks."
The OICBL operates almost entirely in central Ohio, with the Central Ohio Tropics, Chillicothe Capitals, Columbus Bruins, Columbus Hawks, Lancaster Anchors and Zanesville Blue Devils rounding out the league.
Gahanna has three home games left in the regular season, against the Bruins on July 5, Zanesville on July 8 and the Hawks on July 17. A week later, the OICBL double-elimination tournament begins.
Even though the Rockets have only 11 returning players from last year's squad, third-year catcher Jordan Martin (Olentangy Liberty/Heidelberg) says the goal is always the same.
"We come into every season looking to win the league championship," he said. "There has been a pretty strong precedent set by the teams before us. We're trying to win the league. That's the expectation."
Other area players on Gahanna's roster are D.J. Collins (Watkins Memorial/Georgetown College), Simon Davis (Central Crossing/Notre Dame College), Shane DeFranco (Gahanna/Notre Dame College), T.J. Devore (Grove City/Bluffton), Isac Franklin (Pickerington Central/Cuyahoga Community College), Tim Heinmiller (Hartley/Ohio Wesleyan), Patrick Jackson (Grove City/Capital) and Taylor Neville (Gahanna/Notre Dame College).