Though the Ohio American Legion First District is made up of just five teams, the road is anything but easy to advance to the state tournament as Napoleon prepares for its postseason journey to begin tonight at Ottawa’s Memorial Park.
With a grueling summer run that has included tournaments in Terre Haute, Ind., St. Paul, Minn. and Anchorage, Alaska, the 30-12 River Bandits have a chance to shake off a pair of losses to end their weekend trek to Minnesota and get things going in the Legion postseason in hopes of advancing to the state tournament in Lancaster from July 31-Aug. 4.
“I think it’s kind of a clean slate,” said third-year head coach Chad Donsbach, 93-48 as Napoleon skipper. “We’re (Napoleon and Ottawa) are both much improved from when we played in early June. Our big focus is going to be taking care of what we can do: having quality at-bats, being disciplined and aggressive at the plate, our pitchers staying in the strike zone and our fielders making the routine plays.
“Survive and advance, that’s the name of the game in the tournament. At this point, we’re 40-plus games into the season, there’s not much more (general manager) Randy (Bachman) or I can do.”
Napoleon will begin its postseason trek against the Ottawa Legion Fighting 63rd (16-16) tonight at 7 p.m. at Ottawa, with the winner facing 23-10 Pemberville – the defending district champions – Thursday at 7 p.m. in Pemberville.
The loser will play an elimination game Friday in Pemberville against the loser of Toledo and Findlay (20-9) at 7 p.m.
After a pair of step-back years in 2015-16, Napoleon won the district and state championships in 2017 and competed in the regional tournament each of the past two seasons as tournament hosts.
The Bandits claimed the District 1 title all but once in a six-year span from 2009-14 and have hopes of reclaiming past glory, led by players like Landon Willeman (Napoleon High School, .391, 10 doubles, 2 home runs, 25 RBIs, 3 saves, 1-2, 3.57 ERA, 29 strikeouts, 35.1 innings), Austin Lichty (Antwerp, 5-0, 2.74 ERA, 23 innings, 17 strikeouts), Dakota Benner (Montpelier, 5-1, 4.78 ERA, 23 strikeouts, 43.1 innings), Christian Petersen (Patrick Henry, 4-1, 4.05 ERA, 45 strikeouts) and closer Daryke Bass (Edon, 5-1, 6 saves, 29 strikeouts, 2.81 ERA, 25.2 innings).
Brandon Shafer (Defiance, .371, 43 hits, 36 RBIs, 30 runs), Hunter Bostater (Fairview, .339, 34 RBIs, 40 runs) and Lichty (.303, 23 hits, 23 runs) help lead the charge for the Bandits on the offensive side, along with the big-bat heroics chipped in by Axel Shanks (Patrick Henry, .293, 36 hits, 25 RBIs) and Zac Brickel (Hicksville, .280, 35 hits, 9 doubles, 38 RBIs).
With a balanced lineup and rotation, the Bandits’ first mission will be downing an improved Ottawa squad that has split its 32 games this season. Napoleon and Ottawa faced off twice in three days back in early June. Ottawa scored three unearned runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs to snare a 6-5 win before the Bandits got revenge two days later with a 7-5 triumph.
“They have a lefty from Lima Senior (Bryce Binkley) that threw some nice off-speed stuff,” explained Donsbach of the opening opponent. “I fully expect we’ll see him and expect him to be in the strike zone and make some good pitches. They have the ability to score runs in bunches.
“They’re so much improved from last year and a lot of that came from some new personnel. That makes it fun and makes the tournament trail fun.”
Leipsic product Dylan Schroeder leads the regulars for Ottawa with a .392 average, 31 hits and 21 RBIs while Cole Niese (Miller City, .371, 36 hits, 24 RBIs, 32 runs) and Binkley (.41, 31 hits, 24 RBIs, 32 runs, 8 doubles) also provide some pop.
Napoleon feels itself plenty battle-tested from a summer circuit that provided plenty of challenges.
“The Minnesota trip right before the district tournament is a great trip to take,” noted Donsbach. “The pool we were in, we saw Rapid City (S.D.) and saw their best pitcher and saw a national team out of Manitoba, Canada and saw their best pitcher. We saw Lino Lakes, they were the No. 5 team in Minnesota so we saw a lot of regional-level pitching. It’s disheartening a little to not swing as well as we could have but we got a lot of good prep work.”
No matter the path through the district field, Donsbach was quick to credit the strength of the field Napoleon finds itself in.
“District 1 has traditionally been one of the strongest districts in the state,” explained the Bandit skipper. “In some aspects, getting out of the district has been tougher sometimes than winning the state title. Every team has big arms that can throw 86-plus.”
The Pemberville roster will have some names recognizable to area baseball fans with players like Jacob Boelkens, Luke Walsh, Scott Mackiewicz Dawson Delventhal from state-ranked Lake, which fell to Archbold in the district finals, Eastwood star and BGSU commit Tyler Hass, and Genoa standout and Defiance College commit Josh Vischer.
Prep teams like Toledo Central Catholic, Cardinal Stritch, Sylvania Southview, Toledo Whitmer and Toledo St. Francis dot the home squad column of players on the Toledo Legion roster.