An underdog story, a team with high expectations and another playing with nothing to lose are just some of the storylines highlighting the 2013 Crawford/Venango American Legion Playoffs, a tournament where five teams will be vying for one elusive championship.
Tournament action kicks off today as Cochranton travels to Meadville. The winner claims the fourth and final seed. Franklin is the top-seeded squad, French Creek Valley sits second, and Oil City has a hold of the third seed.
It’s been five years since French Creek Valley hasn’t held the top spot in the tournament, a result that can be traced back to FCV forfeiting a doubleheader against Franklin earlier this season. That forfeit came at a pivotal time for FCV, which finished with an 8-3 conference record, as a lack of commitment from players nearly prematurely ended its season.
French Creek Valley manager Brandon Crum looks at that moment as a turning point.
“We really had some commitment issues with our players, and it was a wake-up call for the guys,” Crum said. “It was a reset button for our season. I explained to them my expectations and the community’s expectations, and where this team has been the last five years. More was expected, and now we’re all-in.”
By losing the two forfeited games to Franklin, FCV only had one look at the top-seeded team this season, which resulted in a walk-off balk by French Creek Valley in the season opener that gave Franklin the victory.
Now, FCV is hoping to get another shot at Franklin. And whether the player’s have fully recommitted is yet to be seen, according to Crum.
“So far things have been good, and we talked about recommitting for the rest of the summer. We need to get all of the other distractions out of the way,” Crum said. “You have to be totally dedicated, and you don’t win championships without dedication.”
While French Creek Valley enters with the expectation of winning another title, a pair of teams, Cochranton and Meadville, look to turn some heads as big underdogs in the tournament.
Both Cochranton and Meadville finished with 3-8 conference records, and both teams agree that those records can be thrown out. Combined, the two squads have gone 1-11 down the stretch, but according to Cochranton manager Randy Staudt, the whole thing is up for grabs.
“I mean, it’s baseball. Anything can happen,” Staudt said of his team’s chances of making a deep run in the tournament. “ It’s been a rough second half for us, but we need to play at the top of our game. If we do that, we can beat anybody.”
Cochranton will have to start that road to the title in Meadville, a team Cochranton took two of three meetings against this season. A.J. Nageotte will likely get the nod on the hill for Cochranton, a reliable pitcher that has started in all three conference wins this season.
Nageotte’s opposition has yet to be decided, but for Meadville manager Jason Bustamante, no matter who he throws out there today, he will be playing with a sense of confidence.
“As a team, we’re mentally pretty good right now,” Bustamante said. “We’ve been losing games that we should have won, and a lot of our losses are by one or two runs. The confidence is up on the whole team.”
Meadville might need that sense of calm in its favor considering how young the team is. All but three players are either 15- or 16-year-olds, compared to a team like French Creek Valley, where just one roster player has yet to play in a legion post-season.
“It’s a very young team, and a lot of people will count us out, but don’t underestimate us,” Bustamante said. “We have a lot of young talent, and we fight from the first inning to the last. It’s a real good group of kids to have.”
That eager approach may be exactly what Meadville has to have in order to keep pace with the top-seeded teams.
For Crum, it’s experience that he expects to shine through when it matters the most.
“For some of the oldest guys on the team, this is their fourth time going for a title, and potentially competing for a Region 8 championship and even beyond that. That experience will prove to be beneficial for our team,” Crum said. “We are prepared, and we expect to win it.”
Tournament action begins today in Meadville beginning at 6 p.m. The championship game is set for Sunday at 10 a.m. at Franklin High School.