Lively chatter, the pop of a ball hitting a glove, laughter and the crack of a bat filled the air Wednesday evening at Heise Park as the Galion 12U Little League All-Stars worked out in preparation for the state tournament. The 2015 edition of the tourney opens Saturday at Kiwanis Recreation Park in Painesville.
Awaiting the victor is a trip to the Great Lakes Regional Tournament, scheduled for Aug. 9-15 in Indianapolis, Ind.
Victory in Indy earns one lucky ballclub a spot at the Little League World Series Aug. 20-30 in South Williamsport, Pa.
But, as Galion head coach Jason McMullen has emphasized with his squad, first things first.
Galion is undefeated so far in this postseason, having swept through the District 7 tournament that wrapped up last week at Heise Park. It marked the fourth consecutive district championship for Galion ballclubs coached by McMullen. He and assistant coach Gary Frankhouse have coached the core group of players since the youngsters were 7-years old, moving up to each successive division as the boys have grown older. Galion teams under McMullen won the district as 9-, 10- and 11-year olds.
“We know them pretty well,” McMullen said. “We’ve had them for quite a while and been fortunate enough to win four district championships. They’ve put so much time in. We’ve preached to them over the years about work ethic and character, leadership skills, it’s fun to see it all come together for them.”
Current team members Wilson Frankhouse, Owen Mullins and Matthew McMullen have played on all four district championship teams and are making their fourth trip to a state tournament. The trio has formed a special bond as both friends and teammates over the past several years.
Frankhouse said he’s enjoyed the experience of capturing the district titles for Galion.
“It’s pretty cool and we usually do pretty good,” he said. “Our team usually works pretty well together. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Mullins noted that the team understands that there is a measure of urgency in regard to the tournament since this year marks the final opportunity for he and several of his teammates to capture a state Little League title.
“It’s pretty exciting since this is the last year we’ll be able to do it,” he said. “If we don’t do it this year, we’re done, so we gotta go all out this year.”
McMullen, son of the head coach, said the ballclub is confident about their chances for success in Painesville.
“I think we’re pretty good,” he said. “One year we made it to the state finals (2013), and we lost by five, I think, but we’re a way better team now than then. I think we can win it this year.”
As for the possibility of advancing to Indianapolis or even South Williamsport, Coach McMullen said he and the coaching staff have taken a simple, level-headed approach.
“Our goal from the beginning has been taking one step at a time,” he said. “That was district, and now our focus is that we want to win state. We don’t talk about anything past that right now. The kids and coaches realize when you get to the next level at state, it’s down to 11 teams. You’re talking about the top talent in the state for Little League baseball.
“To win a championship — everybody’s worked hard, everybody’s got talent — you need some luck along the way,” he added. “You need that key hit when you need it, key out. You gotta get a break, quite frankly. So, hopefully, that works for us.”
What could be perceived as a good omen surfaced this week as Russell Athletic unveiled the uniforms that teams will wear during the Little League World Series. What certainly wasn’t lost on the Galion crew is that the winner of the Great Lakes Region will don orange and blue gear when they take the field in South Williamsport.
“I thought that was pretty cool since it’s the only year they’ve been orange and blue, and that’s our colors,” Mullins said with a grin.
McMullen said the success that these players have enjoyed at such a young age is exciting, not only for the immediate time frame, but also for the future of baseball in Galion.
“I’ve talked to Coach (Phil) Jackson, the varsity coach (at Galion High School), and, needless to say, he’s pretty excited about the group of kids he has coming up,” McMullen said. “The 11-year old group is just about equally as talented as this 12-year old group, so the future’s pretty bright for Galion Youth Baseball right now.”
Galion opens play in the tournament on Sunday at 3 p.m. against either Hamilton West Side or Wheelersburg. Those teams will play in the first game of the tournament at 10 a.m. Saturday.