Ligonier Junior Legion team continues to make strides
After nearly a decade of not having a fully and correctly functioning program in the area, the Ligonier Junior Legion team was resurrected two seasons ago and doesn't look to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Ligonier head coach Ben Grace and assistant coach Jason Faust restarted the town's program in 2012, hoping to provide a better feeder system to Ligonier's schools and to avoid having the players leave town to play for neighboring teams.
“Our hardest problem was that there was no feeder system for Ligonier and so most kids would play for other towns like Derry and Latrobe,” Grace said. “We are slowly going to build. The other teams just go year after year and are more established. It will take us a three- or four-year process to be one of the higher rated teams in the league.”
Rebuilding a program can be a struggle early on while the talent level grows. In their first season, Ligonier wasn't able to put one in the win column, finishing the season with a 0-19 record. The team was comprised of mostly 13-year olds after holding tryouts, where close to a dozen players showed up.
This season, Ligonier won one game and finished with a 1-18 record. Ligonier's only win came over Jeannette, 2-1, in the third game of the season in late May. The amount of players who showed up for tryouts prior to this season nearly doubled from the first year.
Ligonier's season officially ended Thursday after a 10-7 loss to Jeannette in the preliminary round of the Westmoreland County Junior Legion playoffs.
“I have been coaching for a while, but I would have to say this past year was one of most difficult years that I encountered with Mother Nature. The kids stuck it out by playing four and five doubleheaders, due to the amount of rainouts,” Grace said.
A couple of players that stood out for Ligonier this season and will return next season were 14-year olds Colin Smith and Austin Tutino and Austin's 13-year old brother, Aaron Tutino.
“Overall, they competed to the best of their abilities. Two of my pitchers hurt their arms this season so it was even harder with so many games being played in a week. However, this is a team I can be proud of for their perseverance and hard work,” Grace said. “The record didn't reflect their improvement made this season. I saw development in their skill sets and technique, as well as develop into young men.”
Grace said small-town Ligonier is a good baseball town but a belief that the program would stick around needed to be addressed.
“The biggest thing was the parents of the kids needed to trust that the team would stick around through all the adversity,” Grace said. “We (Grace and Faust) are here for the long haul. We are starting to see kids are starting to stick around.”
In year three, Grace believes it's all on the kids to believe in themselves and to put in the extra work in order for them to reach the expected .500 plateau. Next year's team will only lose two 15-year olds and be full of players with game-playing experience.
“The boys will have to learn they need to do a little extra work on the side. They need to learn to consistently keep working on their games and as I tell them that it's not like Little League anymore where you can just show up and play,” Grace said. “They have the drive and the focus to get there. Again, their amount of success is up to the kids and the amount of drive they have.”
Andrew John is a freelance writer.