The success of last year’s Washington County team in the Pony League World Series is both a negative and a positive, said manager Scott Downer.
The host team won its first-round game for the first time since 2014, defeating The Netherlands, 9-2, and nearly won a second game, losing 4-3 to Brownsville, Texas.
The negative, Downer said, is it’s added expectations for this group of 13- and 14-year-olds.
“I think it puts some pressure on them,” Downer said. “They saw the success we did have last year, and they want to live up to that. But it’s a different team. We can’t go off what we did last year.”
On the other hand, Downer said it shows the 15 Washington County players – none of whom was on last year’s squad – that winning games at the Pony League World Series is a possibility.
“Expectations from myself are high, but from most people they’re low,” Downer said. “We go into it playing with house money, and I think they’ve bought into that. You never know what can happen. We might surprise some people.”
The series, which starts Friday and runs through Aug. 15 at Lew Hays Pony Field at Washington Park, is being held in Washington for the 56th time in 67 years. Washington’s opening game is noon Saturday against the East Zone representative. The East Zone tournament is scheduled to conclude today.
For only the second year, the host team will be comprised of players from outside of Washington, as eight of the 15 players are from Canonsburg. The last time the host team won the Pony League World Series was when the Washington team did it in 1955. The only other world series winner from Washington County was Monongahela in 1954.
No player from last year’s Pony League World Series team is returning, in part, Downer said, to the age rule change Pony adopted, starting with the 2018 season. The age cutoff date is now Aug. 31 instead of April 30. Any player whose birthday falls between April 30 and Aug. 31 moved up one age level from where they would have been under the previous cutoff date. The change is Pony’s first since 2006, when the cutoff date was switched from Aug. 1 to April 30.
Downer said anywhere from six to 12 players weren’t able to try out for the team because of the rule change.
“The biggest thing that has hurt this year’s team is the age change,” Downer said. “Who knows how the age cutoff affected everyone else? Yes, it did hurt us, but I’m assuming it had the same effect on everybody else.”
Downer said the team’s offense will be its strength while the pitching staff will be by committee.
“If I am going to compare last year’s team to this year’s team, we are probably deeper as a hitting team this year,” he said. “Our lineup is a little bit lengthed. I just don’t have that shutdown arm. Last year, I knew I had two or three kids. We are going to pitch by committee this year.”
Most of the team’s best pitchers, Downer said, are also its best position players. Downer named Ryan Silver and Austyn Winkleblech, both from Canonsburg, as two of the team’s top arms and players.
“Ryan Silver is probably my best overall player. He’s definitely one of my top arms. He can also hit the ball and has some power,” Downer said. “Austyn Winkleblech is another young man who is probably the most athletic kid on the team. He’s probably my best outfielder and my best shortstop. He’s also one of the top arms.”
Downer also listed Michael Shallcross from Washington and Nick Hilbert from Canonsburg as pitchers who could play signifcant roles.
Downer, who is in his second season coaching the team, is a former University of Pittsburgh player and then coached at Pitt, Duquesne and CCAC-Allegheny.
“One of the things I’ve talked to this year’s team about is that I’ve played in front of 20,000 people, and my experience coaching last year’s Pony League World Series team is truly the best experience I’ve had on a baseball field,” Downer said.
Despite the odds against the Washington County team, such as a group of players from one county playing some of best teams in the world, Downer is “confident” in his team.
“Anytime I step on a field, I have the utmost confidence in our kids,” Downer said. “I do think we can win it. I think we’re a better team than people will give us credit for. I think some of the teams will take us lightly.”