New Albany 12U Gold baseball players vividly remembered last year as they prepared to play Boardman in the Little League state championship game July 28 at Hoover Community Recreation Complex in North Canton.
Last year in 11U, the Eagles were in Boardman’s position of having to win twice in one day to capture the state title. After winning the first game 2-1, New Albany lost the second 14-7 to end its season.
For a while July 28, it looked like New Albany might have a chance to score that many runs.
The Eagles did not, but they did not have to.
Zach Barienbrock, Roman Bussewitz, Zach Casey, Ben Liebel and Charlie Oakleaf each had two hits and New Albany held on for a 9-8 win, clinching the program’s first state championship and a berth in the Great Lakes Regional tournament. The regional begins Sunday, Aug. 5, in Westfield, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis.
“(Last year) was on everybody’s minds,” Oakleaf said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking. For a few minutes, I wasn’t sure we were going to pull it out but we did. It was amazing.
“People were telling us two years ago that we had a chance to win state when we got to be 12. We just had to keep improving.”
Garrett Given reached on an error on the first play of the game and later scored on Casey’s two-run double down the left-field line. Malcolm Karzmer’s RBI single to right then scored Casey for a 3-0 lead, and the Eagles added three more runs in the second, two in the third and what turned out to be the game-winning run in the fifth when Ben Clark scored on a wild pitch.
Oakleaf had a two-run single in the second. He had a two-run home run taken away in the third when it was ruled that a teammate had not touched home plate.
Boardman scored four runs in the sixth, three on a bases-loaded double by Jack Ericson. Ericson earlier had an RBI triple, but Aidan Booth got a game-ending groundout from Marty Stachowitz.
“The boys are great hitters, really well-rounded players overall,” Eagles coach Greg Ecleberry said. “Our pitching actually carried us through the tournament. We had some really close games.
“We knew staying in the winner’s bracket was going to be difficult because eventually, we were going to run into Boardman. I threw my ace, Ben Liebel, out there. He has great control and great velocity and teams have a hard time catching up to him. We were glad to be able to stay in the winner’s bracket so we would be in the driver’s seat and only have to win once.”
Dozens of family members and friends greeted the team upon its return to New Albany later
July 28. Mayor Sloan Spalding congratulated the players and coaches, who paraded around the high school parking lot with their state championship banner and posed for team and individual photographs.
Champions of District 6, the Eagles began the tournament July 21 with a 6-3 over Washington Court House. They beat Tallmadge 14-3 on July 22, East Holmes 3-2 in seven innings July 24 in a quarterfinal and Boardman 3-1 in a semifinal July 26.
New Albany’s first game at the regional will be Monday, Aug. 6, against the Indiana or Kentucky state champion, neither of which were determined at press time.
The regional champion advances to the Little League World Series, Aug. 16-26 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“Even on game days (during the state tournament), we were practicing one or two times a day to get the work in and just make sure we were crisp,” Ecleberry said.
Liebel, whom Ecleberry called the team’s ace, said he occasionally has watched the Little League World Series but only recently began to seriously think he might get to participate.
“I usually watch a couple games every year,” Liebel said. “A few games (into the state tournament) when we were winning every game, I thought this was possible. We just kept it going.”