Over the past decade, no team has been able to dethrone the mighty Hiland Hawks Senior Little League baseball team. For the past 10 summers, the Hawks’ 15- and 16-year-old baseball team has secured a spot at the Central Regional tournament in either Missouri or Illinois, where thrice it has gone on to compete in the Senior Little League World Series.
Over the years the Hawks have developed a tremendous reputation in Peru, Illinois, where the directors of the tournament have come to expect the team and have enjoyed them because of the way the team goes about its business and respects everyone there.
But Monday, July 9 may have signified the end of an era as the Hawks did not qualify for regionals. However, it was not at the hand of any of the other teams competing at the Ohio state tournament in Maumee, Ohio, but rather Little League itself brought the hammer down and ended the reign of state titles for the East Holmes team.
One day after winning its winner’s bracket final contest to advance to the finals, the Hawks were informed that they would have to withdraw from the tournament because they had not played the required slate of 10 games during the summer that are necessary to compete in the tournament.
The issue at hand is that there are no other senior teams in District 4, and although Hiland has been presented with an exemption to this rule and has been allowed to participate over the past several years, Little League officials in Indianapolis, Indiana put their foot down this year.
“Our kids were crushed because each year they have had the opportunity to go to regionals to fight for a chance to play in the World Series, and that was taken away from them,” Hiland varsity baseball coach Chris Dages said. “The district administrator called and said there was an issue with our affidavit after we won our winner’s bracket final game. In the past they have always given us a waiver because we don’t have anyone to play, but they would not issue a waiver this year for some reason.”
Little League officials said the Hawks should have notified them about the issue of having no teams to compete against, and they could have set up games with other districts. That would encumber driving three hours one way to compete with teams from Miami, Rock Hill or Maumee. That was something that both Dages and team head coach Kevin Schrock said was simply a ridiculous notion.
“It is frustrating, but there isn’t a lot we can do about it,” Schrock said. “We still have our regular season schedule to focus on, and we are really doing well there, so hopefully that will open up some different ways we can continue to play.”
Is this an end of an era for a team that has exemplified everything Little League is supposed to be about? It could well be because the idea that suddenly another team will arise in the district to play seems a long-shot at best. Dages said they have informed Little League that they may have to pull out if that is the case.
Meanwhile, the Hawks summer team continues to participate in the SSBL (Stark-Summit Baseball League), a local high school league that extends into Tuscarawas, Summit and Stark counties. Hiland is currently undefeated there at 8-0, and should they win the SSBL, they would qualify for a national tournament that would allow the team to play at a higher level of competition than they faced at state.
“We are fortunate that we do have other avenues to explore in playing good competition and extending the season to get the guys more games,” Dages said.
Both coaches said they would feel fine if someone had come to state and sent them home by defeating them, but to lose in this fashion, to have something taken away that has been such a highly anticipated time for the players is tough to take.
There is little time to dwell on the dissatisfaction with an SSBL double-header looming against the Ohio Torque and a tough game against a talented GlenOak team on the horizon.
However, knowing that they had a 10th-straight Central Regional berth well in hand, it won’t be any time soon that the sting of the Little League decision fades away.