New Era Correspondent
It’s been 20 years since a team, or an organization, has won back-to-back titles in the Midget Division of the New Era Tournament.
In the time since Manor Ridge accomplished the feat in 1981 and 1982, there have been teams that have come together for one big year then disappeared, like Mount Joy in 1993 and Pequea Valley in 1999.
And there have been teams that won, then got back to the title game the following year — Solanco in 1996 and 1997, Elizabethtown Bears Blue in 2000 and 2001 — but were denied their second championship.
Interestingly enough, the same team that denied both Solanco and E-town — Hempfield Black — is the latest to try its luck against the Midget title hex.
Hempfield Black (18-5-1) opened its title defense Saturday morning at Manheim’s Baron Athletic Complex with a 10-0 knockout of Denver in a game shortened to 4 innings by the 10-run rule.
The victory earns Hempfield Black a semifinal date with Conestoga Valley Friday at 5:15 p.m. at Ephrata’s War Memorial Field. Conestoga Valley advanced by forfeit Saturday, when an untimely combination of injuries and vacation absences left E-town Bears Blue unable to field a full team.
Hempfield’s Austin Hinkle tossed a two-hit shutout and Jordan Herr and Drew Pare drove in two runs apiece to pace the victory. They are the grizzled veterans of this team — the only holdovers from the 2001 titlists. And Herr is the son of former major-leaguer Tom Herr, who is this Hempfield team’s manager.
Because of that, some may see them as the focal points of this team’s leadership. But that’s not necessarily so.
“It’s more of a team thing,” Pare observed. “We have really good team chemistry.”
Mix that returning trio with players promoted from last year’s Hempfield Grey team — including Brett Rhoads (3-for-3 with a walk Saturday), Ryan Hogentogler and Brian Millaway — and with midget-level rookies like Phil Harnick and Kyle Enoch, and you have a pretty nice team.
Now infuse that team with a businesslike attitude, and you have a serious title contender. And “serious” is the perfect word for this bunch.
“We take things pretty seriously,” Hinkle said.
“We joke around a lot before games,” Pare added, “but once we step over the lines, it’s game time.”
With highly motivated kids such as these, at least a little credit for the team’s approach has to go to their manager.
“What I tell them is, if they come to play, and play as hard as they can, they can beat anybody,” Herr said. “We’ve had a couple games this year where I didn’t feel we really came to play like we should. But for the most part, this group’s been very good in that regard.”
Prior to Saturday’s game, Herr made sure his Lanco League Section 1 champions were focused on defeating Denver.
“The danger in a game like this, when they know they’re playing a Section 2 team, is to think they can go out there and just go through the motions,” he said. “What I tried to tell them before the game was, they would be cheating themselves if they did that. Play hard, no matter whom you’re playing, and take care of business.”
Business was taken care of.
Herr, Hinkle and J.T. King hit run-scoring singles, then Harnick got an RBI when he was hit in the back by a pitch with the bases loaded as Hempfield Black jumped to a 4-0 lead after one inning.
After surrendering a first-inning hit to Travis Gerhart and walking Ryan Miller, Hinkle settled in and retired 10 of the next 11.
“It wasn’t my best performance,” Hinkle offered. “I’ve had a lot better this year. I had a little trouble with my fastball. I couldn’t spot it too well… it was tailing away. But my curveball really worked well today.”
His curve accounted for the majority of his seven strikeouts, but the late movement on his fastball earned its share. It also denied decent swings to Denver’s hitters.
Of the 10 batters who put the ball in play against Hinkle, only three pulled the ball, including Jason Weaver, who opened the fifth inning with Denver’s final hit.
Herr noted that Hinkle, who went 3-for-3 with two no-decisions as a sophomore on Hempfield’s varsity team, “knows what he’s doing out there. He’s a pitcher, not just a thrower. He’s got a nice curveball, and he’s confident in throwing it.”
While Hinkle was taming Denver, his teammates were methodically putting the game on ice. Pare (3-for-3) doubled in a pair of runs in the second inning. Herr (2-for-3, two runs) knocked in his second run, using his speed to beat out an infield single in the fourth. Enoch scored Hempfield Black’s eighth run on a wild pitch.
It was a wild afternoon for Denver starter Tony Caltigirone and his relief, Cody Hassler. They combined for six walks and hit three batters.
Looking to evoke the 10-run rule, Hempfield loaded the bases with one out in the fifth inning on a hit batter and two walks. With the Denver infield in tight, Damian Himpsl grounded sharply to second baseman Anthony Richardson.
Richardson thought long — too long — about throwing home, looked to first, and threw home as Millaway scored the ninth run. Rhoads then looked at four straight balls and walked to first for the mercy-rule RBI.