A naturally talented Toledo-based youth baseball team has blossomed under the guidance of an exceptional coaching staff and is garnering national accolades.
The team won a World Series title at the United States Specialty Sports Association tournament on July 6 in Birmingham, Ala.
The Diamond Hawks, a group of 13 local 11-year-olds, went 7-0 in the elite major division.
Former major league pitcher Ron Rightnowar has been coaching the team's core members for three years, along with former Kent State University pitcher Kevin Johnson.
"Our original thought was that we would give these kids good instruction at a young age so that they could make their high school teams. That was the baseline," said Rightnowar, who played one season for the Milwaukee Brewers. "I think that will happen easily for these guys. That is plenty for most kids. But I think we have gifted ones that have a chance to play beyond that. With this group, the sky is the limit."
This season the team posted an overall record of 45-10, and seven of the losses came against teams consisting of 12-year-olds.
"They are starting to get recognized nationally," Rightnowar said. "They're ranked No. 1 in the USSSA power rankings. People know who the Diamond Hawks are."
The Hawks qualified for the USSSA World Series by winning the Ohio State Championship Tournament for the second time in three seasons.
The members with their positions and hometowns are: Noah Best (OF/P, Toledo), Camden Buescher (2B/P, Toledo), Connor Bowen (SS/OF, Millbury), Trevor Hafner (OF/3B/P, Toledo), Jared Rettig (C/3B/P, Millbury), Casey Johnson (SS/1B/P, Toledo), Colin Kaucher (3B/C/P, Toledo), Daniel Kruzel (1B/OF, Toledo), Josh Kruzel (C/OF, Toledo), TJ Lake (OF/P, Toledo), Louie Mauro (OF, Maumee), Luke Rightnowar (SS/OF/P, Oregon), and Tyler Stambaugh (1B/P, Sylvania).
Johnson and Rightnowar said the group, which includes their sons, proved to be quick studies as 9-year-olds.
"We focus on pitching and defense," Johnson said. "That is what will win games. If you don't walk kids and you play good, solid defense, you will win. Hitting comes and goes. You run into slumps. That's why you have to pitch well. I pitched in college, and Ron pitched [in the pros]. We work hard with the pitchers on their mechanics."
Rightnowar played at Whitmer High School and then at Eastern Michigan. Johnson played at St. Francis de Sales and Kent State. Both graduated from high school in 1982.
Rightnowar, who is currently the baseball coach at Toledo Christian, appeared in 34 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1995. He went 2-1 with a 5.40 earned run average.
Rightnowar played nine seasons in the minor leagues, including parts of four years with the Mud Hens, and posted a 35-31 career record with a 4.00 ERA. But he tries to downplay the coaches' unique insights and instead credits the players for implementing the techniques.
"I like to believe I know a little bit about it, but really it had more to do with their willingness to absorb the information," Rightnowar said.
"I could teach them stuff I would never attempt to teach to 13-year-olds. They're just smart. We just keep taking them further."
The team's top offensive performers were Hafner, Lake, and Buescher. Defensively, the Diamond Hawks were led by Kaucher, Johnson, and Buescher.
On the mound, Rightnowar, Stambaugh, Lake, and Johnson took turns shutting down the opposition. The four-man rotation this year got relief from Hafner.
Two key players, Rettig and Bowen, were added to the roster just before the team's trip to Alabama.
Bowen was named the tournament's most valuable player.
The local players competed against teams from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas at the World Series. The tournament was a six-day event, culminating with a 7-3 win over the Texas Yankees.
The Texas team included the son of former Major League pitcher Roger Clemens, who attended the games. "Our kids were quite excited to be able to play against his son and in front of him," Johnson said.
Johnson said the coaching staff teaches the same fundamentals that are taught at the high school level. Johnson is an assistant at St. Francis.
"We teach the kids the same things we teach in high school," Johnson said. "They absorb it, and it takes a special group to do that at this age."
Even as 9-year-olds, the players were conducting the same exercises and drills as the high school players.
"We taught them how to lead off and steal when they were 9," Johnson said.
The players go through indoor drills January through March, and the season starts in April. The team plays three or four games a week and competes in tournaments every other weekend. The Hawks won four of the six tournaments they entered this year.
"We will stay together," Johnson said. "We have kids that without a doubt will play in high school. We hope some will play beyond that. But we don't talk about that now. They have the skill set, and it's just a matter of how hard they want to work."
Rightnowar said the players could still accomplish a lot more as youths.
"We've still only scratched the surface," he said. "They still are not physically big yet. They are as classy a group as you have ever seen on and off the field. They are extremely talented and have won everywhere they have been, but they remain quite humble, which is pretty heady stuff for 11-year-olds."
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-304-4760.