Sometimes teams just need their bulldog to pick up the baseball, toe the rubber and carry them.
Hiland Senior League’s 16-year-old Ryan Hershberger did just that when the Hawks, representing Ohio in the Senior Little League central regional tournament in Peru, Illinois, got the nod on the mound in a key semifinal game versus a talented Michigan team.
The bulldog dug in and never let go, baffling Michigan hitters to the tune of a 3-1 Hiland victory that propelled the Hawks into the central regional final versus Wisconsin.
Hershberger was brilliant on the mound, tossing a complete game three-hitter, allowing just the lone run in the seventh inning. He struck out seven and walked one.
“He was unbelievable,” Ohio head coach Mike Yoder said of Hershberger. “Michigan’s kids and their fans were really loud and into it and were trying to shake him, but nothing ever seems to rattle Ryan, and he just went out inning after inning and went to work.”
Meanwhile, the defense kept making plays.
Michigan was coming off a 20-0 blowout of the host team, and Yoder said he actually took his team and left rather than watch them pummel the host team from Illinois.
“I didn’t want them watching that,” Yoder said with a laugh.
However, with Hershberger keeping the ball down, he produced plenty of ground balls, and Hiland’s infield did a great job of making plays. Yoder said that with each passing play and with every inning going by with the Hawks making plays defensively, it was plain to see Michigan getting more tense.
“That was a terrific Michigan team, really athletic,” Yoder said. “They could flat-out hit the baseball. But the more we kept making plays on defense, the more the pressure built up for them. Our kids didn’t give an inch on defense, and they started to get frustrated and pressed.”
While Hershberger was dealing, the Hawks weren’t exactly smoking the ball themselves on offense. However, as has been the case through most of the state and central regional, Hiland did well with what it had and created enough offense to eke out a win.
The Hawks tallied single runs in the first, third and fourth innings to spot themselves to a 3-0 lead.
In the first Tyler Kline drew a walk, and with two outs Casey Kalman was hit by a pitch. Ricky Miller then lined a single to right to plate Kline for the 1-0 lead.
In the third inning Andy Miller led off with a single and was forced at second on a ground ball off the bat of Hershberger. After Kalman’s ground-out moved Hershberger to second and Kalman reached first safely, Ricky Miller lined his second single to right to load the bases. Kevin Borntrager went down on strikes, but Logan Miller worked a bases-loaded walk to score Hershberger.
Hiland took a 3-0 lead in the fourth, courtesy of an unearned run. With one out the red-hot Kline singled and went to second when Andy Miller lashed a single. After that Hershberger hit a frozen rope to left that went for a line-drive out, Kalman walked and Ricky Miller’s hard ground ball was mishandled, allowing Kline to score.
Hershberger continued to shut down Michigan and in the sixth inning made a sensational play on a bunt down the third base line that saw him field the bunt and make a perfect throw to first base for the out while falling into foul territory. However, in the seventh he finally seemed to tire a bit. A walk came around to score, and with nobody on base with two out, Hershberger allowed a double before settling back in and recording a strikeout to end the game.
Yoder said this Senior League team has seemed to have found itself just at the right time of the year, and a team that was not highly touted moved into the championship game, one win away from becoming the third Hiland team to represent the central region in the World Series.
“I think this bunch has surprised a lot of people,” Yoder said. “These kids have just gotten better and better and better. These kids are starting to believe in themselves. They are starting to understand that fundamentals and defense are going to go a long way in making us the team we want to be.”
Hiland was paced offensively by Ricky Miller and Andy Miller, who recorded two hits apiece. Kline continued to serve as a catalyst from the lead-off spot, where he scored twice.
Hershberger’s mound effort against the slugging Michigan team came two days after big right-hander Korrie Hostetler also shut them down on four hits over five and two-thirds innings of impressive baseball.
“He pitched a beautiful game,” Yoder said of Hostetler. “He was in complete command, and I just let him roll. That kind of pitching effort is exactly what we’ve gotten from these kids throughout this tournament run.”
Pitching and defense have always been the calling card for these Hiland summer teams, and this group seems bent on making sure that tradition continues as they hope it carries them all the way to South Carolina for the World Series.