Akin to I-Medical manager Doug Pennington, S.W. Jack skipper Mitch Pacconi refuses to look past his first-round foe in the Pennsylvania Youth American Legion Western Regional baseball tournament.
But Pennington and Pacconi, who watched their teams square off in last year’s regional championship game and in two straight league championship series, each noticed that in an ideal situation, their teams would lock horns on Day 3 of the tournament.
This scenario would only play out if Punxsutawney-based I-Medical and Indiana-based S.W. Jack win their first two games, on Saturday and Sunday.
The tournament begins Saturday at First Commonwealth Field in Homer City with Indiana County champ I-Medical taking on Farmington at 5 p.m. and county runner-up S.W. Jack facing Meyersdale at 7:30 p.m.
The top three teams advance to the Pennsylvania Youth American Legion State Tournament, which begins Aug. 3 at First Commonwealth.
“That’d be great. We can only hope it does happen,” Pacconi said of the possibility of facing I-Medical on Day 3 in the winners’ bracket. “It really is a great rivalry. The people, the coaches and the players are all great from Punxsutawney. There’s no hatred between them, but when the game starts, they’d both kill to win.”
“It’s kind of nice to play somebody else for a change. The bad thing is, if we both win, we’re eventually going to meet,” Pennington said. “The rivalry goes back years. I’ve been involved with Junior Legion baseball for eight years, and when it first started, neither one of us got along. It’s always good to beat Mitch because he always has his team’s ready to go. But as the years have gone by the rivalry has definitely mellowed out a lot.”
The defending regional champion Black Sox will make their third straight appearance and fourth in five years at regionals.
Pacconi has steered S.W. Jack to eight state tournament berths since 1989. He said he’ll rely on his stable of 15-year-old pitchers to try and repeat as the tournament champ.
“I think we’ve got a good shot with our pitching. We’ve got five solid 15-year-old starters,” Pacconi said, referring to Cole Shaffer, Zach Schultz, Chase Kromer, Bobby Bell and Tanner Yard. “They’ll give us a chance to beat any team. We’ve just got to play hard and see what happens.”
Permitted to pick up one player from the league, Pacconi added Yard from Young Township. Pacconi said he plucked Yard over a plethora of the league’s best players because of Yard’s ability to man any position on the diamond.
“Picking up someone like Tanner helps a lot because of his ability to play anywhere on the field,” Pacconi said. “He can pitch. He’s a good infielder, and he can play the outfield. … It particularly helps us this year because our bench is just so thin.”
For the second straight season, I-Medical will head into regionals as the county champ under Pennington and will face a county runner-up (Farmington) in its first-round game. Like Pacconi, however, Pennington has learned in his experience at regionals that every team poses similar threats.
“I really don’t know a whole lot about those teams coming down here,” Pennington said. “What I do know is that seeds don’t make much of a difference in this tournament. Whether we’re playing a county runner-up or a county champ, we’re going to have to beat a formidable opponent. We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game every day.”
I-Medical will have to make due without a pickup player. Because of Pennsylvania Youth American Legion rules, Punxsutawney-based teams I-Medical and Fezell Enterprises are not allowed to add an ever-valuable pickup player.
Still, Pennington seemed perfectly content putting his crew up against the region’s best in Homer City.
“Everybody’s rested and healthy, and that’s all we could ask. We’re looking good and we’re very excited to get down there and play some ball,” Pennington said.