LIMA — Spot any baseball coach 11 runs before a game and he’s sure to take it. Rick Koch certainly would fall in that camp.
So when Koch looks back on last year’s American Legion baseball state tournament, it’s not the 11 runs his Lima Post 96 team scored against Napoleon which concerned him. It’s the 22 runs they gave up which sticks with him.
Lima is making a return trip to state this week, after finishing third last year, and Koch hopes more than a few things have changed, particularly with the pitching staff.
“Our goal as a coaching staff has been to improve from last year’s performance,” Post 96’s manager said. “They just had a substantial amount of pitching which kept us off balance. We ran out of arms. This year we have a little more depth, experience on the mound we can rely on in situations.”
The top arm belongs to district MVP John Simindinger. The Bath graduate and future Ohio Dominican player is 5-0.
“It’s been really nice. We’ve been in a couple of tournaments and we’ve never been in a situation where we didn’t have an arm to throw out there,” Simindinger said. “We’re confident we can get the job done. We’ve been blessed in that way. If we can string some wins together down at state, we’ll be fresh later in the tournament.”
That tournament experience was built into the schedule just for this week. Koch and the other coaches hoped playing in top-level tournaments like the Tawa Classic in Putnam County and the Storm Club Tournament in Cincinnati. Not only did they get great experience, the confidence boomed after Post 96 won both of those tournaments.
“That’s exactly what we planned, to get these guys used to that environment and roll with the punches, and be able to put it away at the end,” Koch said. “The boys responded well to the tournaments. ... We play to win, and I think that’s the mentality we need to set down at state, especially in that first game. That first game means so much.”
After a win over fellow state-qualifier Piqua on Thursday, the Legion enters the tournament with a 34-7 record. The team will find out who it plays and when after a dinner tonight in Lancaster. The tournament begins Monday.
It hasn’t been just Simindinger, who plays shortstop, carrying the load on the mound and at the plate. Keaton Sullivan was named the district tournament MVP with a monster performance at the plate last Saturday and a seven-inning pitching win in the clinching victory over Sidney on Sunday.
Post 96 also boasts the powerful bat of Mackenzie Hampshire and last year’s district MVP, Mike Snider.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Simindinger said of the MVP award. “But you look at our team and the reason our record is so good is we have other guys who could have won it. Our record is what is because we’re solid from top to bottom.”
Simindinger’s influence has paid off for Sullivan. Teammates at Bath, Sullivan sought out Simindinger for extra batting work later in the season.
“I just started swinging a lot better,” Sullivan said. “Doing that extra work, the confidence rises.
“It just makes you want to keep working harder,” he said. “Last year I had a really good state tournament, so I’m excited to go down and see what I can do.”
There are players like Simindinger and Sullivan who were a part of last year’s team, but there’s a good portion of players who are making their maiden voyage to Lancaster for the tournament.
Trevor Kottenbrock has plenty of avenues to turn down when looking for insight on what to expect. His older brother and current Lima Locos pitcher Travis Kottenbrock played for the Legion when he was at Lima Central Catholic.
“It’s exciting, I’ll tell you that much,” Kottenbrock said. “It should be fun. I think we’re expecting to have a good shot at the finals, but who knows.”