Another successful summer of Steele and Cook Insurance Ohio Valley Baseball League is in the scorebooks.
Congratulations go out to the Barton Braves for their third playoff championship in four season (they finished runnerup last season).
Manager Billy Timko had to re-build nearly an entire team following the retirements of several key cogs from 2011, including the top three pitchers.
But the Braves never seemed to miss a beat.
"Basically, we had to start from scratch for the most part," Timko said. "We lost our top three pitchers, a very talented second baseman, a veteran catcher, and a couple of other players, but the guys that we brought in stepped up and carried the load. They got the job done."
Barton, the No. 2 seed entering the postseason, advanced to the championship series with victories over West Liberty and St. Clairsville. In the title series, the battle-tested Braves faced an up-and-coming Neffs A's Gang, which was the fourth seed.
The A's Gang knocked off the Wheeling Cardinals in the first round before outlasting top-seeded Weirton in a grueling three-game semifinal.
In the best-of-5 championship series, Barton jumped out to a 2-0 lead before Neffs won Game 3. However, the Braves prevailed in Game 4.
"This victory is very satisfying," Timko admitted. "With everything that we had to go through."
He also had news for naysayers of the league.
"Whoever doesn't think that the OVBL isn't back, it's back in full force. I think the championship series was very enjoyable for the fans," he added. "We had great crowds in all four games. The fans should've loved the series."
Barton seemed to have the perfect blend of veteran leadership in Joel Atkinson, Vinnie Kirkpatrick, Tom Pasco, Dustin Hynes, Nick Rocchio, Mike Muklewicz and Ryan Kreiter to combine with the young guns that came aboard.
The newcomers could very well represent an OVAC All-Star squad as Barnesville's Tyler Kurtz and Jordan Yager, along with Bellaire's Anthony Rocchio, Martins Ferry's Jordan Murray, Union Local's Jordan Barbina and Linsly's Derek Miller, via Rayland, all played key roles this summer.
They may not be the Oscars or Espys, but the Steele and Cook Insurance OVBL Awards are a close third when it comes to summer baseball in Belmont and Ohio counties.
While yours truly didn't take in every OVBL game (I did cover 49), I managed to see all the Ohio-side squads, and all but two of the Mountain State teams.
Thus, I think I qualify to make the following determinations:
DEFENSIVE PLAY OF THE YEAR: It didn't take me long to come up with this Web Gem. It occurred in Game 1 of the championship series and was turned in by Neffs' leftfielder Brandon Leonard.
The former Martins Ferry two-sport standout snagged a drive off the bat of Mike Muklewicz while crashing into the fence at Henning Field.
A close second was his fully-extended grab of Vinnie Kirkpatrick down the left field line in Game 3.
OFFENSIVE PLAY OF THE YEAR: This one was tough to decide. In fact, it was so close that I flipped a penny and it landed on its side. So, we'll go with co-plays.
Barton's Vinnie Kirkpatrick receives half the honor for his game-winning, two-out single in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 1 of the championship series. It gave Barton a 4-3 victory.
The other half goes to Neffs' slugger Jon Nagel, whose titanic two-run homer was the big blow in the A's Gang elimination-game triumph over the defending champion Red Dons.
LONGEST GAME (S): Another tie as the St. Clairsville-Maynard first-round playoff encounter took two days and 11 innings. Ten of those frames were played until it was almost pitch-black, while the Titans took advantage of only eight Maynard players showing up for the conclusion the next day.
Game 1 of the championship series which Barton won 4-3 in 10 innings. That contest had just about everything happen that could in a baseball game.
PITCHER OF THE YEAR: There were quite a few candidates in this very important category. Neffs' Matt Masarick fashioned an impressive 13-1 mark that included the A's Gang's lone championship series victory; Barton's Kurtz finished at 10-3 and was named the championship series MVP; Maynard's Mark Cisar also collected double-figure mound wins; and Weirton's Steven Buffo hurled just about every inning for the Red Dons.
However, when the envelope was opened, Masarick was the winner.
REGULAR SEASON MVP: Once again, more than a few capable candidates. After much consideration, Barton's Hynes receives the nod.
The outfielder-turned-catcher hit an amazing .525 during the regular season. He was the Braves' No. 2 hitter and was the gas that made the engine go.
MANAGER OF THE YEAR: This was a no-brainer since several teams don't have full-fledged managers.
Timko took a Barton team decimated by retirements and led it to the championship. Enough said.
It wouldn't be an OVBL column if I didn't add a few comments.
First of all, Neffs had an amazing season and gave Barton all it wanted in the championship series.
It was pointed out that Neffs is comprised of mainly former Martins Ferry athletes, with a St. John Central, Shadyside and Union Local product each tossed into the mix.
However, had the A's Gang had a little more direction in their dugout, who knows what could've transpired. That's not taking anything away from the job that Josh Wells, Cliff Francis and Dane Koch did, however.
The same could be said for St. Clairsville, which I thought had a chance at winning it all. Adam Vincenzo did a great job while he was in the dugout, but unfortunately, he missed the playoffs and it showed.
I thought that league president Laney Simone Sr. and vice president Koch did an outstanding job of running the league. According to both, there are some big changes in store for next season.
North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org