High School Invitational 'Experience Immeasurable'

Bruce Hefflinger
PBR Ohio Senior Writer

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High School Invite Content:

High School Invitational 'Experience Immeasurable'

Even the unfavorable weather did not diminish the excitement generated at the second annual Prep Baseball Report Ohio High School Invitational.

“The PBR events in the spring have quickly become great events to be a part of,” noted Jeff Mielcarek, head coach of Toledo Central Catholic, one of the two host schools at the invite along with Clay. “They bring quality programs together to highlight both teams and players.”

The two host schools were joined by three returning schools from last year’s PBR Invite - Massillon Jackson, Walsh Jesuit and St. Edward - and three newcomers - Marlington, Ottawa Hills and University School. Four games were scheduled on day one, moving teams into the winners’ bracket and losers’ bracket, with all slated to play three games. However, weather and matchups played a factor in some only having two contests.

In the end, Massillon Jackson came out on top with three victories, edging out Walsh Jesuit 4-3 in the championship game. In fact, all three wins by the Polar Bears were by the same 4-3 score, just an example of how even the competition was and how unpredictable the sport of baseball can be.

“We could have been 0-3 or 3-0,” Jackson coach Bill Gamble said of his squad’s wins over Ottawa Hills, Clay and Walsh Jesuit. “You have to appreciate the resiliency, grit and fight we showed. That’s the backbone we’re looking for at this time of year. It’s vital to figure out who we are.

“The hard part for us on the weekend is limited pitch count because of our league,” Gamble added. “We had to get into our depth, I just kept saying give me two innings. Maybe some played above themselves.”


While four of the schools were part of the 2022 edition of the event, half of those head coaches were not at the first one. All of the mentors that took part in the invitational came away with good things to say about it.

“Playing in the event will be extremely valuable for our players,” pointed out University School head coach Rob McNerney, whose team is ranked 11th in Division I to start the year. “Not only did they benefit from playing great competition, but they received excellent coverage through PBR social media. Both should prove worthwhile for our team and players future.”

Marlington’s Cody Jones is another that was thrilled with what the event can do for his program and himself as a head coach.

“What I loved about it was the challenge of handling the pitching,” the boss of the 10th-rated Division II team in the state said. “We had a few injuries and some other difficulties earlier this year and having to juggle the pitching gave us an idea of what it will be like when we play multiple games each week.

“It also allowed me to see how my guys compete against way more talented ballplayers and I think it showed my guys that they can play with anyone if they do things right and stick together. The experience and confidence that my young guys gained was immeasurable and I think will benefit us tremendously down the line.”

Ottawa Hills head coach Chris Hardman sees it as beneficial as well.

“The PBR experience is wonderful,” the long-time mentor of the 11th-ranked Division III team in Ohio said. “There are quality teams and coaches, which allows for your team to grow versus great competition.”

The Toledo Central Catholic head coach also saw major benefits in being a participant.

“This weekend gave us an opportunity to see what we need to do both individually and as a team to compete against the best teams around,” explained Mielcarek, whose Fighting Irish enter the season ranked 17th in Division II. “This past weekend helps us to better prepare for our difficult league and non-league schedule which lies ahead.”

The frontman of the Massillon Jackson program saw it as a good learning experience for his team and himself.

“It’s hard to figure out depth without putting them into the fire,” explained Gamble. “For early in the season it was a tournament atmosphere in all three games. You bring them into that environment and evaluate the arms. We’re very excited with the results and proud of our guys.”

Bowers and Clark are both first-year head coaches for programs that were part of the event a year ago.

“I think we will benefit most from the tournament style of play,” noted Bowers, who took over the Walsh Jesuit program after the retirement of Chris Kaczmar. “There aren’t many invitationals or tournaments played in the high school season, so it’s nice to get a feel for that must-win atmosphere. As a coach, I got to experience a wide array of styles of play, which will help me grow, and show my team things that can’t be replicated in practice.”

Clark, whose team is rated 12th in the state in Division I, also sees how the invitational will aid his squad.

“The field of teams was great and it is always good to play top competition,” explained the first-year St. Edward head coach. “It was a good gauge as far as where we are at as a team at this point in the season. It will help us as we head on our spring trip this week and start to get ready for the state tournament.”


So what do these coaches think about the strength of those participating?

“The field of teams was ELITE, holy cow, are you kidding me?” Jones related. “You had a great mix of public and private schools and there were some of the best players and teams in the state. Public wise, Oregon Clay is a very solid D-I program, Jackson has run Stark County for as long as I can remember, we hold our own in D-II and Ottawa Hills can play with anyone as well the way they are coached and the kids they have. Walsh Jesuit, TCC, University School and St. Ed’s are the best of the best, and while I know my team can't compete with those guys every year, we can hold our own against all of them currently and what better way to challenge them early in the season.”

Jim Phillips of Clay was happy to be part of it.

“I thought the competition was outstanding,” the mentor of the 25th-ranked Division I squad in Ohio said. “Playing them at the start of the season gives you opportunities to find things out about how your team will play/perform in high stress tournament-type situations. It puts us up against some of the best teams in the state while increasing player exposure for recruiting.”

The head coach of Central Catholic agreed.

“The tournament field of teams was really good!” Mielcarek said. “It was a great way to begin the season, as well as to go through the off-season, knowing that we needed to be prepared for high-level competition right out of the gates. It was pretty amazing to see how many D-I committed players were a part of this tournament field.”

Nobody has more of those than Walsh Jesuit, the third-ranked Division I team in the state.

“The field of teams is very tough, and so well coached,” noted Bowers, the WJ mentor. “Starting our season against teams of that caliber really helps us gauge exactly where we need to improve.”

It was just what McNerney was looking for to begin the 2023 campaign.

“The group of teams we saw were exactly what we were hoping for when committing to the event,” the University School head coach noted. “Deep, talented and well coached. Moving up to Division I this year is a challenge - and a great opportunity. Playing the teams we did was a great test for this season.”


As the calendar turns from March to April, weather in the state of Ohio can be brutal when it comes to athletics outdoors. Fortunately for those looking to get games in early in the season during some unfavorable conditions, the fields in Toledo and Oregon were up to the challenge.

“Mercy and Ousky fields were tremendous venues for the games,” McNerney related. “The playing surfaces held up well in really bad weather. There was crazy wind and rain but we still got all three games in. The communication of Phil (O’Shea, PBR Ohio/Michigan Tournament Director) was top notch.” 

Jones was also happy to play three games to finish off the first week of the regular season, picking up one victory.

“The sites were top notch,” the head coach of Marlington said. “Mercy Field is one of my favorite places for a high school ballgame. I love that we could take BP before we played, there was plenty of room in the dugouts, plenty of room on the field, I love the dirt mound and the PA announcer is a great addition.”

Playing in the PBR event to cap off the initial week of the season for the second year in a row drew raves from the Massillon Jackson mentor as well.

“Both facilities were outstanding,” related Gamble, whose squad started the year ranked 34th in the state in Division I. “It was my first time at Mercy and Clay and both had outstanding environments to play. I was so impressed with all the teams there and the quality of baseball on display.”

The head coaches of both host facilities were pleased to be able to make it happen.

“Hosting an event like this alongside PBR is an honor, however it does add to what we need to do as a coach to start the season,” Mielcarek explained. “The ‘tropical Toledo weather’ as it has been called made it a bit more difficult, however we would do it again if asked.”

Phillips had the same beliefs.

“I thought it was a great honor and look forward to being a part of it again next year if asked,” Phillips said.


While coaches are appreciative to PBR for being part of the invitational, a few had opinions on ways for improvement.

“My only criticism is that we had the same home plate and base umpire two games in a row on the same day and from what I could see was their third game of the day,” Clark explained. “I realize maybe umpires were hard to find but I think two games in the same day with the same guy behind home plate and same guy on bases and that being their third game of the day is not ideal. This is not a criticism of their performance, just my observations.”

There was one more coach that had something to point out.

“One thing I do not enjoy is driving to Toledo to play teams from northeast Ohio,” Bowers said. “Playing teams from the area the invitational is being held in would be more optimal.”

The weather was another issue that caused concerns for the Walsh Jesuit mentor. 

“My only problem with the tournament was on Friday when the whole world knew the 7 o’clock game wasn’t going to get in, yet we didn’t try to move the games up or to another location,” Bowers said. “I understand the hopes of the rain missing but it just seemed we could have had a better plan of attack. Other than that it was an extremely well run event, and I would highly recommend it.

“We really appreciate being in the invitational and love the competition!” Bowers added. “We hope to see you again.”

Clark agreed with that aspect.

“We look forward to all PBR events and will be excited to accept an invitation to play in any PBR event in the future,” the St. Edward mentor concluded. “Our kids, coaches and families love it.”

Any other ideas on making it better?

“I am being nitpicky here, but It would be nice if there was an announcer at both locations,” Jones said.

But that was far from a major issue for the Marlington mentor, as proof of his response to being part of the event if asked again.

“One thousand percent yes,” Jones said.

The same goes for McNerney.

“Yes, we’d love to come back someday,” McNerney said.

It was a mutual feeling by all the coaches at the invitational.

“The PBR events in the spring have quickly become great events to be a part of,” Mielcarek related. “They bring quality programs together to highlight both teams and players. We would always be honored to be asked to participate in a PBR event going forward.”

Hardman had similar thoughts.

“We would love to continue to play a PBR event!” the Ottawa Hills coach related. “Thanks for having us be a part of your organization!” 

Nobody knows better than Gamble when it comes to the High School Invitational to begin the season.

“It’s our second year coming up there and we’ve had two good experiences,” the Massillon Jackson coach concluded. “It’s a great level of competition, that’s all you can ask for. We will absolutely be back.”

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