delgazette.com

Alice L. Sheets

May 16, 2012

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Competition drives sport, not the other way around.

There’s nothing wrong with a casual game of catch on a warm summer Sunday with friends and family … nothing wrong with a game of pepper to pass the time on a lazy late afternoon in June. Then again, there’s nothing like suiting up with the best, sharing a field with the best and playing against the best for a chance to, you got it, be the best.

It’s a concept certainly not lost on Bill Heilshorn and Bruce Miller, the respective President and Vice President of Olentangy Little League — a first-year program in the midst of its most exciting stretch of the season.

With a slew of All-Star teams already assembled — a group highlighted by the U12 Braves, Patriots and Pioneers — this week marks the start of tourney time.

The Little League tournament itself is absolutely massive, complete with district, regional and national rungs of competition. Olentangy, a member of District 8, one of Ohio’s 11 distinct districts, will host the opening games this week at Powell’s Tyler Run Elementary School (all games set to start at 6 p.m.). The three Olentangy squads are all in the same pool, one of four different pools, and will compete against each other for a chance to represent the area in the District Championship next week in Washington Courthouse.

If the team that survives pool play wins the district title (championship to be played July 7), it will advance to the Great Lakes Regional to play against the district champs from states surrounding the lakes, like Wisconsin and Michigan. Win that, and the group would represent Olentangy, Delaware County, Ohio and the entire Great Lakes region in the Little League World Series, televised live on ESPN’s family of networks.

Pretty intense, right? Well, that’s the point. The tournament provides competition at its finest, layers and layers of it — exactly what the league’s founders envisioned when starting things up.

“We don’t know how far we will go in the tournament … but to be able to tell these kids that they were selected on an All-Star team that has the chance to go to the Little League World Series … you should have seen their faces,” Miller said. “It’s the dream every boy who loves baseball has at this age … something that has been never offered in the Olentangy School District before.”

“We started because we wanted to provide a higher level of baseball for the Olentangy kids who really wanted to excel,” Heilshorn said. “We wanted to provide a competitive environment where the best kids could play against each other.”

Olentangy’s had youth baseball for years, most notably as part of the Olentangy Youth Athletic Association (OYAA). The problem was, especially recently, people were leaving the area and shelling out upwards of $4,000 to play in more competitive leagues such as Columbus’ Big League Baseball.

“The bottom line is OYAA simply had a recreational program,” Heilshorn said. “It was designed as a rec league and, well, not everyone was happy with that.”

Now, smack dab in the middle of an ultra-competitive tournament — a series of games dripping with exciting storylines — the OLL is looking to ride the wave of enthusiasm to an even bigger sophomore season.

“We’ve had phenomenal feedback,” Heilshorn said. “Nothing’s perfect and, with this being our first year we’ve made our share of mistakes, but we have a phenomenal board of directors and just around 900 boys in our program, making it one of the largest in Ohio. In fact, I think we’re in the top three as far as numbers go, and we’re just getting started. We believe we’ll be even bigger next year.”

The OLL had 905 registered players the season, and 75 total teams across six leagues. It supported three charters within each league, each charter aligned with one of the three high schools. The player ages ranged from 4-14 years old. In addition, the league had over 200 volunteer coaches supporting the teams, along with a large number of parent volunteers.