New Legion skipper ready for season

LEWISTOWN – American Legion baseball kicks off Saturday, and Mifflin County’s new coach says there’s plenty to be excited about.

Bernie Howard, who returns to Legion ball from a lengthy – and successful – stint in the Mifflin County Babe Ruth League, says his group of players has something to prove after the high school season ended with a disappointing district semifinal loss to Central Mountain.

The local team, sponsored by Milroy American Legion Post 287, will see the same clubs it faced in the spring as part of the Central Penn League schedule. A third of the players are seniors about to graduate from Mifflin County High School; one other upperclassman is a senior at Midd-West who played in the local Babe Ruth League.

The common thread they bring to the season is time spent with Howard and his coaching staff, and an expectation of success. Howard said it’s just like any other year in his eyes.

“Virtually ever member of this Legion team has played for me at some point in the past, and in the recent past. And I coached at this level many years before,” he said. “There’s really no transition in my mind.”

Turnover, he noted, is common in a league like this – many of the players who have been chosen for this team are new to the Legion program – but that could be a good thing as the younger players get the chance to age into the game.

“Approximately half the team is senior (and) junior players from the varsity and then we have very young talented players to back them up,” Howard said. “We have, I think, a very good mix.”

One of the often-mentioned keys to success in the local Babe Ruth league has been the continuity in the coaching ranks, and Howard’s staff has a pair of familiar names.

“Chuck Curry and I have been together for pretty much all of the 15 years in Babe Ruth. Jeff Lusk has been with us for the last five,” he said, but added that there are new faces in the dugout, too.

“We added two young, dynamic coaches we’re excited about having with us,” he said. Nate Saltzer’s focus will be pitching; Hunter Thompson is listed on the roster as a bench coach.

“Both have played for Chuck and I in Babe Ruth all stars; in fact, both were two-time state champions,” Howard said.

The Central Penn League is a highly regarded organization filled with strong opposition.

“I don’t see any easy marks in the league schedule,” Howard said, but the goal is a return to states. “It’s a long, hard road. I think the parity in the league is very good. There are probably four other teams along with us that are fighting for those top spots.”

There is a renewed emphasis on getting the players seen by college coaches, one of the benefits of the Legion program. Along with the traditional trip to Frederick, Md., the team will participate in tournaments in Mansfield and Elkins, W.Va., the latter a major regional event.

“There will be 40 teams competing there from as far away as St. Petersburg, Fla. In fact, that’s who we open with,” Howard said. “They have already received word that between 23 and 33 college coaches have already signed up to be there. That kind of exposure just doesn’t happen everyday. This is exactly the kind of thing we’re aiming for.”

The team returns to Lewistown borough as its playing site again this year – the Legion will play at Rec Park, with a number of games under the lights. It’s a field Howard knows well from his tenure with Lewistown West.

“It’s in excellent condition, it’s 383 feet to dead center field and we do have the lights,” he said. “There are nights when folks can come down and watch a Babe Ruth game starting at 5 o’clock and then the Legion starts at 7:30 – a good night of baseball.”

The team, he said, is ready to play – and needs to be, with three games this weekend. Mifflin County opens with Bellefonte – the team Howard’s son played Legion ball for – in a 2 p.m. doubleheader Saturday. The first night game is Sunday at 7:30 against Beech Creek.

“We evaluated the strength of this team. From a baseball standpoint, we appear to be excellent defensively, have outstanding speed, I think our hitting is definitely above average. What we need is solid pitching,” Howard said. “The level of maturity, the level of enthusiasm and excitement, is amazing. This is a highly, highly athletic group of young players.

“We’re cautiously optimistic but so enthusiastic for the season to start. I think the excitement resonates through the whole team. They’re ready.”