After guiding the Hiland Hawks Senior Little League team to within inches of a World Series appearance last season, and that on the tail of a World Series runner-up effort the summer before, Mike Yoder had been pretty sold on the fact that he was going to hang up his coaching hat for good.
The long-time Hiland summer baseball coach has been at the helm of the Hiland senior league program for almost a decade, and he was adamant enough about stepping down that he had seen very little of this summer’s crop of 15 and 16-year-olds.
But when it came right down to it, stepping down proved to be tougher than he imagined, and after some rest and relaxation during the early summer regular season, Yoder decided to step back into the stirrups for at least one more summer to lead the program that has churned out eight consecutive state Senior League Little League championships.
In addition the Hawks’ program has made a pair of appearances at the World Series during that span and has reached the Central regional final four in six of those eight regional appearances.
“This program, these kids, they mean a lot to me, and I care a lot about this program because I think the summer program is a big part of how far this Hiland baseball program has come over the past years,” Yoder said. “And it isn’t because of me. It is because these kids are dedicated enough to buy into the system of wanting to make themselves better as individuals and as a team. That is why I wanted to come back: because I want to see this group of kids get the same opportunity all of those before them got in winning a state title and compete at a regional level. And who knows how far it could go?”
Yoder went on to note that the summer program has become an extension of the varsity program in many ways, implementing the same philosophical views of fundamentals and hard work.
Having stayed away from the team all summer as Kendall Schlabach took over the everyday managerial duties during the regular season, Hiland was without a head coach for the tournament, knowing that Schlabach would not be available to coach the tournament team.
Yoder said after stepping away from the program in the early summer season, he felt refreshed and ready to roll, although he admitted the time away from the game has put him a little behind the eight ball when it comes to evaluating team personnel.
“It is going to hurt me a little bit in terms of figuring out where each guy fits into the game plan, but I just have to rely on the coaching staff who has seen these guys play a lot more than I have.”
While he may have to learn on the fly as the Hawks practice diligently in the several days leading up to the state tournament July 8-11, the nice thing is that regardless of the personnel, one constant has been the way the game is coached.
Practices are not easy. While many summer programs are not taken seriously, this one is, and Yoder and his staff have maintained that same work ethic when he stepped into the coaching role years ago. The focus on defense and pitching and the detail given to teaching fundamentals and hustle remain intact.
“Those things don’t ever change in baseball, no matter who we send out there,” Yoder said. “We take it very seriously. We have had some practices here over the years that have been absolutely scintillating practices. They have been extremely hard practices that have pushed kids, but I guarantee you that kind of thing has made this program what it is.”
Last year’s senior team lost to Illinois 5-2 in the Central regional final, and that team went on to win the World Series with their closest game at the World Series being a 6-run win in the finals.
One bad inning cost the Hawks in that Central regional title game, and while the core group from that team is gone, two key components return to lead this year’s group.
Back are shortstop/pitcher Andrew Miller and Ryan Hershberger, who can legitimately play all nine positions on the field and play them well. Both players were key cogs in last year’s team, and they will be relied on heavily to serve as leaders for this group.
“Their leadership is key, and we will go as far as those two kids take us,” Yoder said. “I know with their character, attitude and ability they will perform well. They are proven. Outside of that we have a lot of youth, kids who are eager to get better and continue this program’s success, and I am excited to watch them grow and develop.”
Another talent who provided some valuable playing time last summer at regionals is outfielder Tyler Kline, who may be asked to play a great deal of infield this season. Kline proved to be a tough out and didn’t seem to back down from the challenge last year. Also back from last year’s team as players who were along but didn’t see much action are infielders Ricky Miller and Drew Yoder. Newcomers include catchers Casey Kalman and Shane Hershberger; outfielders Logan Miller, Kobe Shetler and Kevin Borntrager; middle infielder Brett Miller; and pitchers/corner infielders Korrie Hostetler and Michael Shoup.
It is a smaller group in numbers than Yoder has had in the past, but one plus is solid pitching depth with Andrew Miller, Hostetler, Shoup, Hershberger, Borntrager, Kline, Ricky Miller, Shetler and Brett Miller all as capable mound men.
“I like what I have seen from our pitching depth,” Yoder said. “It will be interesting to see where these kids eventually settle in. We’ve got a lot of positions open right now, so someone is going to have to step up.”
This core group won a Little League Junior League state title two years ago, so playing in pressure situations is nothing new for them. They all want nothing more than to continue the strong tradition this Hiland summer baseball program has built.
* Hiland won its first two games at the state level, earning an 8-4 win over Mason and a 3-2 victory over Maumee to reach the tournament winner’s bracket final.