Tyler Johnson doesn’t remember his first Pony League World Series.
“That was a long time ago,” he said.
Ever since he was too young even for kindergarten, Johnson, a Trinity student, has been involved with baseball. Every August, he’s settled for being a fan at the World Series. This Saturday, Johnson and his Washington County teammates will get their shot to be the ones fans come to see as they make their debut against London, the European Zone champion, at 2:30 p.m.
The Pony League World Series begins Friday night with two games.
“I used to be the little kid sitting up on the hill in right field,” Andrew Kocan said. “Now, I’m gonna be the one actually on the field playing.”
Fifteen players will represent Washington County at Lew Hays Pony Field in Washington Park, and they will be led by a fresh face: 24-year-old manager Ben Miller.
Miller’s only prior coaching experience has been in a graduate assistant capacity at his alma mater, Waynesburg University. With his head coaching career just out of the womb, the Pony League World Series will certainly be the biggest moment thus far.
“If I tell you I’m not going to be nervous,” Miller said, “that’d be a lie.”
Miller knows this won’t be like other tournaments, and he knows his players understand the significance of it better than the teams they’ll be playing.
“Most of our guys have been coming to every World Series since they were 5 or 6,” he explained.
“I think that helps and hurts. It kind of normalizes it, but they know how big it’s going to be. … When they walk up that hill and see a couple thousand people at the game, I think it’d be a lot to ask for a 14-year-old not to be nervous about that.”
One thing that will add excitement and anxiety for the players is the amount of friends and family they’ll have supporting them compared to other teams at the tournament.
“I’m definitely (nervous about) just performing well because I don’t want to do bad in front of all my family and friends,” Kocan said.
As a young coach, getting used to a big stage will be a challenge for Miller. One of his strengths, however, is his grasp of the modern game. Just two years ago, Miller was a second team all-conference catcher at Waynesburg. The way concepts such as bunting are looked at is different today, and for the players, Miller’s understanding of today’s game is an asset.
“He knows what’s best in the game right now,” outfielder Hunter Campbell said. “Things change, and techniques change. He’s fresh out of college. Since he’s fresh out of college, he knows what has been working best. So he’s trying to teach us that.”
Three of Washington’s top players, according to Miller, are infielder, pitcher and cleanup hitter Calvin Daniels, catcher/pitcher Mason Fixx and outfielder/pitcher Connor Helbling.
Miller’s four assistant coaches know their roles. David Johnson, Tyler’s father, is in charge of working with the infield. Brian Baker is the pitching coach and first base coach, and Corey Reid, who Miller worked with at Top Prospects Training Facility in Morgantown, W.Va., is the hitting coach.
“There’s certain tendencies we know about the kids that he doesn’t know,” Johnson said. “He’ll ask us certain things and we’ll tell him.”
While Miller isn’t afraid to be hard on his players when necessary, Johnson said he knows the right way to encourage them when they need it most.
“If you have a bad game, he’s going to text you and say ‘Don’t worry about it. Pick it up the next game,’” Johnson said. “He doesn’t get on them when they do something wrong … he’ll get on them, but not in a harsh way, like I’ve seen other coaches do. The kids all respond to him very well, and they all love him.”
Washington County knows that it doesn’t come in with high expectations from others. Over the past three years, the team is just 1-6 in series play. Knowing that its history doesn’t measure up to powerhouses such as Chinese Taipei or the West Zone, the team understands that it will have to go the extra mile on the practice field to go far in World Series.
“We’re definitely underdogs,” Campbell says, “so we have to work so much harder than everyone else just to compete.”
One thing Washington County has going for it, however, is not having to qualify for a spot in the tournament. In the leadup to Aug. 10, Washington County has been playing teams from areas such as Chicago and Canada. For Baker, this allows Washington to figure out the best possible players to use in the World Series, rather than having to sweat it out simply to get there.
“To us, all these tournaments are more of a what will help us best prepare for the one tournament,” Baker said. “Because the World Series is the tournament that means everything.”
Without the pressure of having to qualify, players such as Campbell have had more time to look forward to the World Series. Campbell, above all else, can’t wait to hear his name called in front of around 20 family members who will be watching him.
For Miller, it’s important for him and his team to grasp the significance of the Pony League World Series, while at the same time, understanding that they’re still playing the game they love.
“I think I’m going to soak in how awesome it is and realize it’s just a baseball game,” Miller said. “Yes, it’s an international one. Yes, we’re the home team. Yes, the expectations, I get that. But at the end of the day, it’s still baseball.”
Johnson doesn’t remember his first Pony League World Series as a fan, but he’ll certainly remember his first as a player.
“It’s gonna be a great experience. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” he said.