Who's left, who's new, and more importantly, who can challenge for the title?
Title FavoritesOsaka Touin (Osaka) - 6th appearance, 1st in 4 years
With the Haru Koushien champions qualifying, albeit with a late scare as they almost punted a 10-1 lead in the final against Riseisha, Osaka Touin has to be considered the front-runners to win and thus achieve haru-natsu renzoku yuusho, or spring-summer champions.
But the exact reason they almost gave up that lead, is the same reason they may not be able to win.
In the spring, Fujinami was able to hold out until the end. But I said back then that in the spring the weather is much, much more favorable. Come the summer, the heat and humidity would be much less accommodating.
And as mentioned, in the Osaka taikai he couldn't finish out the final game and had to turn it over to reliever Sawada to close it out. There's no doubt that they'll have to lean on Sawada more if they wish to be the 7th ever spring-summer champions.
Osaka Touin has been known for their offense. Nishitani-kantoku's management of the pitching staff will be key to victory.
Kousei Gakuin (Aomori) - 6th appearance, 2nd consecutive
While we're at it, let's look at the bridesmaids for the last two calendar Koushien tournaments - Kousei Gakuin.
When I saw them in person, there was nothing about the team that stood out, and when they were annihilated in last summer's final against Nichidai-san, I figured that'd be the end of that.
Instead, they replaced ace Akita with Kanazawa, qualified for Senbatsu this year, and reached the finals before losing to Osaka Touin 7-3.
Then came the Aomori taikai where they had 2 scares right off the bat against Misawa and former powerhouse Aomori Yamada. Once they cleared those two, the path to the final was much easier.
The pitching for Kousei Gakuin is deeper, but not as strong. 2B/P Jyouma has been used interchangably by Nakai-kantoku which will be a great help in keeping the arms fresh. The offense isn't as strong, but is still very solid. They have become a good all-around team from a prefecture not known for contending baseball teams.
Nichidai-san (Nishi Tokyo) - 15th appearance, 2nd consecutive
As much as I dislike Sanko, you have to give them their due - they were the dominating team last summer, and in the Nishi Tokyo final, they trailed 1-0 to Kousei Gakuen before Kousei crumbled giving up the game-winning double to the wall.
Sanko despite almost losing in the final, gave up just 3 runs in 7 games. Despite losing Yoshinaga, Saitou has taken over as the ace number, with Ooba as their main reliever and has done a great job.
Offensively, the first 4 games saw them post double-digit runs in 3 of them. But against the tougher competition - Hino, Souka and Kousei Gakuen, they won 3-0, 3-1 and 2-1.
So it will be interesting to see how the offense reacts to a good pitcher, especially if they draw one in the early going. But the opportunity to be a repeat champion is good motivation in and of itself.
Title ContendersSakushin Gakuin (Tochigi) - 8th appearance, 2nd consecutive
Sakushin Gakuin was another, "Oh, that's nice they got to the semifinals" team before losing to Kousei Gakuin. They then made it to Senbatsu as well and got to the 2nd round before giving up a 1-run lead in extras to Naruto.
Sakushin profiles to be a poor man's Kousei Gakuin. Not as good of an offense, and a pitching tandem of Tsutsui and Mizunuma that is not as strong as Kanazawa-Jyouma. But with a rather weaker field then usual, a favorable draw could get them back to the semifinals.
Aikoudai Meiden (Aichi) - 10th appearance, 1st in 5 years
Aikoudai Meiden almost didn't make it like Nichidai-san. Down 2 runs to Touhou in the final, Touhou crumbled giving up the lead, the 2nd of which was due to a passed ball. Meiden would win in 11, and be yet another team to make both Senbatsu and Natsu Koushien this year.
Hamada is certainly more than an average pitcher, but he's almost all alone on the mound. Azuma is the reliever Kurano-kantoku would go to, but from his usage is not that trusted.
Meiden's offense is also a weakness. As witnessed against Touhou and earlier against Aichi Sangyoudai Kougyou, the offense can disappear leaving Hamada to try to carry the team - much more than the usual.
Dark HorsesUrawa Gakuin (Saitama) - 11th appearance, 1st in 4 years
After 3 years of unable to reach Natsu Koushien, they finally book their tickets here in 2012. They were here in the spring, and reached the quarterfinals, and were 3 outs away from defeating eventual champion Osaka Touin, but ace Satou Takuya couldn't close the door.
Up until that moment, Urawa Gakuin was just like any other team in Saitama - underwhelming. For as big as Saitama is in population, it has NEVER won a Natsu Koushien tournament.
Why the heck is that? I mean, they have the 5th biggest population by prefecture. The 4 bigger ones - Tokyo, Kanagawa, Osaka and Aichi - all have won a Natsu Koushien, but Saitama has not.
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Saitama is so close to Tokyo, so close to Kanagawa. If you were a good baseball player in middle school, you were probably recruited by teams down south. Why play for a team locally when you can go to a prestigious school such as Nichidai-san, or Waedsa Jitsugyou or Teikyou?
Urawa Gakuin in the Saitama taikai gave up just 2 runs. Ace Satou was responsible for one of the two (Yamaguchi Rui gave up the other). They did defeat Seibou Gakuen and last year's representative Hanasaki Tokuharu. But because it's still in prefecture, despite the impressive results, it doesn't prove anything.
They batted 0.361 in the spring and 0.350 this summer, but the question will be whether they can string the hits together, or if Satou and Yamaguchi will can hold up if they don't.
And so Urawa Gakuin enters the 94th Natsu Koushien, with a good performance in the spring to perhaps portend things in this summer. But they'll probably need things to fall their way for it to happen.
Urasoe Shougyou (Okinawa) - 4th appearance, 1st in 4 years
This is just Urasoe Shougyou's 4th ever Natsu Koushien appearance, but apart from their first appearance where they lost in the first round, they have reached the semifinals in 1997 (losing to Chiben Wakayama) and 2008 (losing to Tokoha Kikugawa - I remember that game and the 9-run 2nd by Kikugawa and how happy I was!).
The appearance had been somewhat in coming as outside of a surprising loss to Chuubu Shougyou last summer in the 3rd round, they had reached at least the quarterfinals in other taikais.
This time around, their road to the title saw them face such well-known schools as Kounan, Kadena and in the final - Urasoe Shougaku. And before that final against Urasoe Shougaku, they outlasted cinderella Maebara, who had their sights on their first ever title.
I don't have a lot of information on Urasoe Shougyou other than they faithfully use a tandem of pitchers - Miyazato ? (宮里 泰悠) and Teruya Hikaru (照屋 光). Teruya is a fireballer, able to hit 150+ on the gun. I can't find a whole lot on Miyazato, but the tandem seems to have worked.
It will be interesting to see what happens on the big stage. Will they be able to continue the successes at Koushien?