The entire Houston American Legion baseball team from last summer is back again this season, albeit in difference capacities in some cases.
Only two starters -- Mario Trona and Tyler Chardello -- from last year's team were no longer eligible to play Legion ball because of the age limit but both came back to serve as assistants under manager Brandon Ditmar.
Not surprisingly, Houston is looking much like it did last summer when it won its division and reached the regional championship game. Through 11 games Houston has ridden strong pitching and defense to a 9-2 record.
While the team, which draws 17 players from Canon-McMillan High School and one from Chartiers-Houston, looks much like it did last summer, there is a big difference. Metal bats were banned in Pennsylvania American Legion baseball this summer and it has been a tough and expensive transition for Houston. Through 10 games the team has already broken 23 bats.
"The wooden bats definitely don't help," Ditmar said. "They are going through them pretty quickly."
Ditmar, a 2005 Canon-McMillan graduate, went on to play baseball at Waynesburg University and he is now in his sixth season with the Houston American Legion team, three as an assistant and three as manager.
His assistants this year, Trona and Chardello, have been big helps. Both are 2011 Canon-McMillan graduates who went on to John Carroll University to play in 2012 but injuries cut short their collegiate careers.
"They still love the game," Ditmar said. "I have a pretty good rapport with them and it is nice having them around."
The top pitchers for Houston have been Matt Douglas and Kevin Forrester. Douglas is a 2012 Canon-McMillan graduate who pitched at IUP this past season and Forrester is also a 2012 Canon-Mac graduate.
"They are our two best pitchers," Ditmar said. "They are 1 and 1a or 1a and 1b, whatever you want to call them."
Douglas missed his senior season at Canon-McMillan with an injury but he did see playing time at IUP this past season. Forrester was the ace of the Big Macs varsity team in the spring. He will pitch next season at Thiel College, an NCAA Division III program in Greenville.
"Matt throws five different pitches, all for strikes, but he can be a little bit wild," Ditmar said. "Kevin is more of a spot up pitcher. He mostly throws fastballs and curveballs but he also has a changeup."
Pitchers Ryan Ulam and Luke Blanock combined to pitch a no-hitter against Bethel Park earlier this season. Blanock, a junior at Canon-McMillan, pitched five innings of no-hit baseball and Ulam, a 2013 Canon-McMillan graduate, pitched the final two innings.
The Big Macs varsity team finished the WPIAL season 12-8 this year, winning the Class AAAA Section 5 title, a conference that features teams such as Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, Peters Township and Upper St. Clair. They also reached the WPIAL quarterfinals.
Along with the high school team's success there was also the American Legion Allegheny South Division title last summer and a section championship during the fall in the Western Pennsylvania Fall Baseball League.
"We have definitely built off that," Ditmar said. "We are building off the success we had in high school and even with the high school season we fed off the success we had last summer and last fall.
"We are keeping the momentum going and we are just trying to build off all that. We played in a lot of close games the past two years, which has definitely helped."
Offensively, Douglas and Tanner Piechnick have led the way. Piechnick was a freshman this past school year at Canon-McMillan.
"Matt Douglas has really been hitting the ball well," Ditmar said. "And Tanner has really started to come around. He has really worked hard and gotten a lot better."
Douglas plays first base or right field when he is not pitching while Piechnick can serve as a catcher, play first base or in the outfield. The duo bats in the middle of the Houston lineup -- anywhere from three through five..