Ok, time to turn back on the switch as qualifying for the 98th iteration of the Natsu Koushien tournament gets underway, starting with the edges of the country.
Okinawa - Round of 16
Okinawa is always the first to get things started. Makes sense considering you're talking about schools in numerous different islands. You certainly can't run a schedule like other prefectures wherein games may go on consecutive days. Travel would be hell for the kids.
The first round has already concluded, with Itoman getting the first round bye. The draw was already bad enough for Yaeyama as 2 of their schools - Yaeyama and Yaeyama Shoukou, faced off in the first round (Yaeyama Shoukou won 8-2). Even worse yet is that they now have to face Itoman.
For Itoman, the road didn't look to get any easier. Should they win against Yaeyama Shoukou, Miyako comes next (a good tier 3 school), then a possible matchup with either Kadena or Kounan in the quarterfinals. Basically, almost all the good schools wound up on Itoman's quarter of the bracket.
And in the end, they couldn't even get past their first game. In fact, they never led in the game falling 3-2 to Yaeyama Shoukou. So instead they pick up the flag and march forward, but all the obstacles still stand in the way - Miyako in the round of 16, then either Kadena or Kounan, who scored double digit runs in their last games.
Whomever advanced would seem to have a straight shot to the finals as the bottom half of that side only had Maehara and Ginowan, who have both advanced to the Round of 16, but should provide little resistance.
The other half of the bracket is much easier to project. In the upper quadrant of that side, the only school in the bunch is Urasoe Shougyou, who have pitched 2 shutouts and should reach the semifinals - no problem.
In the bottom quadrant, Okinawa Shougaku pretty much stands alone. They didn't look all that sharp to start with a 9-4 win over Kumejima, but cleaned things up in the next round, a 6-0 win over Urasoe. Okinawa Suisan, the only other notable school - but who was a superpower back in the day, was eliminated by in the first round by an unknown in Shouwa Yakka Daigaku Fuzoku - though they too are in the round of 16.
Kita Hokkaido - Regional play completed
For the Hokkaido regions, if you're not familiar, because of the large size of the prefecture, they solve the travel issues by having regional qualifiers. Of course, if you happen to be in say the Muroran region and have to play Komadai Tomakomai, or in the Asahikawa region and have to face Asahikawa Minami, Asahikawa Kougyou, or Asahikawa Jitsugyou - or heck, if you are one of those schools and have to face another to get that one bid - it all seems a little unfair. Sure, even if they did one big bracket they could still draw into it, but the odds seems more against them in a regional.
In "A" Block, Shirakaba Gakuen had a 1st round bye, but defeated Obihiro Sanjyou 5-2 (who isn't that bad of a squad year after year, but they wind up running into someone like Shirakaba Gakuen and are eliminated) and Ikeda to advance to the prefecturals.
"B" Block should have been Obihiro Ootani's to win. Or at least on paper it should have. But when they faced Kouryou (No, not the one from Hiroshima obviously - this one is read 江陵) they ran into quite a pitcher in Furuya Yuuto (古谷 優人). Not only did they defeat Obihiro Ootani 6-1, but he was reported to hit 150 kph (though it probably is more like 145) with a standard slider/curve combo. However, the fact that he walked 5 while only striking out 5 could be cause for concern since we're barely into the qualifying process. With competition outside of the regionals getting presumably harder, and there's no indication that they won't make it, the walks are a bit of a concern. That was verified with a 12-5 mercy rule win over Obihiro Nougyou to take the block. Yes, it was a mercy rule win, but no, I don't expect them to go far.
"C" Block was won by Obihiro Hakuyou, defeating Honbetsu 8-3 after surviving 2 close games late.
"A" Block was won by Asahikawa Nishi, but unspectacularly winning 10-4 and 7-4 over middling competiton.
"B" Block saw Asahikawa Higashi advance, but had to survive Asahikawa Kougyou 14-11 after going up 5-0, then behind 8-5 after just 1 inning. Rumoi provided no resistance in the block final.
"C" Block had both Asahikawadai and Asahikawa Ryuukoku drawn together, with Asahikawadai clawing back from a 3-1 deficit to win the block 4-3.
"D" Block almost was a breeze for Asahikawa Jitsygyou despite having to play 3 games to advance out of the block.
Kushine kicked off their regionals on the 28th with 3 blocks of 6 teams. The only notable team is Bushuukan who resided in "C" Block. However, they faltered late in the block final and wound up falling to Kushiro Koryou 3-2 despite a last minute rally. Kushiro Meiki and Kushiro Kougyou won "A" and "B" blocks respectively.
Kitami had uneven brackets due to number of teams, and the quality of play showed with the first two games of the regionals being 5 inning called games with Kitami Kougyou defeated Memanbetsu 10-0, and Monbetsu defeating the combined squad of Rubeshibe-Yuubetsu-Kunneppu 12-0.
For those wondering, because of declining populations in rural regions, schools are closing or consolidating across the country. To accommodate schools who may have baseball programs, but perhaps unable to field a team anymore, the JHBF has allowed schools to combine to form a team. Most for obvious reasons do not fare well, but there have been the odd exception who make a decent run.
As for the results, "A" Block's Kitami Hokuto, who had a great run last summer, may have seen their window close. They lost 1-0 in their opening game against Kitami Shougyou. But they couldn't build on that as Abashiri Keiyou shut them out 4-0 to win the block.
The other favorites, Engaru ("B" Block) and Kitami Hokuryou ("C" Block), had no issues moving on to the prefecturals.
Clark Kokusai and Takigawa Nishi, who both had byes in their blocks, both advanced through the regionals with little issue. Clark Kokusai will be interesting to see because it appears they may have just incepted their baseball program in 2014.
Nayoro's regionals just had 8 teams, so win 2 games and you're in. Even still, they have 2 decent teams in Wakkanai Ootani and Shibetsu Shouun, who this year managed to avoid each other. Wakkanai Ootani, who is clearly the better of the 2 right now, had no problems in "A" Block. But Shibetsu Shouun had to scramble after giving up 8 runs to Nayoro in the 5th inning and pulled out a 14-13 win to advance to the prefecturals.
Minami Hokkaido - Regional play completed
There are understandably less regions in the southern Hokkaido region as they are centered around major cities - Hakodate, Muroran, Sapporo and Otaru.
Otaru is sorta the northern-most regional in Minami Hokkaido - and the smallest. That aside, they do have Hokushou - and they advanced out of "A" Block.
Unfortunately for Otaru Chouryou, their time seems to have been last year. While they managed to draw the other block, they fell to Futaba 12-3 in the block final.
Sapporo is the major contributor to the prefecturals, having 8 blocks in all. Even still, each one just about has a well-known team.
"A" Block saw Sapporo Dai-ichi advance scoring double digits in their 2 games. Unfortunately for Sapporo Yamanote, another decent team is steamrolled.
"B" Block had Sapporo Nichidai, who doesn't disgrace, but is pretty much a tier 3 school. But they eked out two wins against no-names Sapporo Kousei and Sapporo Tsukisamu to advance.
"C" Block was one of the lucky blocks with no major names. With that opportunity, Hokkaido Kokusai Jyouhou put up two offensive games to advance out of the block, though future prospects don't look good.
"D" Block was Hokkai's to lose, and they almost did in their sandwich game, just getting by Sapporo Asahigaoka 4-3. Outside of that it was 2 easy shutouts.
"E" Block was where Toukaidai Sapporo resided, and while they did advance, their final win of 7-4 over Sapporo Ryuukoku might mean the run of last year was their best chance.
"F" Block I thought would be Sapporo Ootani's to win. But despite the quarterfinal run last year, and winning the spring taikai (which in reality doesn't mean a whole lot), they couldn't get out of the first round falling 4-3 to Ishikari Shouyou. In fact, they never led in the game. That allowed Kita-Hiroshima to drive right through the opening, thanking Ishikari Shouyou 10-4 as they motored to the prefecturals.
"G" Block had a rematch of sorts, with Sapporo Okadama and Sapporo Kiyota playing once again, this time in the block final. Kiyota certainly narrowed the gap from the 5-0 loss last year, but they faltered in the middle innings falling 6-4.
"H" Block saw Hokkai Gakuen Sapporo walk off Ritsumeikan Keiyou 2-1 to advance to the prefecturals.
Muroran was no contest. Komadai Tomakomai wins "A" Block going away with back-to-back 13-0 wins. Over in "B" Block, Hokkaido Sakae went 11-1, 23-1, 15-7 to claim their bid. And in "C" Block Tomakomai Chuo went 13-0, 7-2, 8-0 to take the last spot.
Hakodate was the last regional to finish play. But here too were few surprises.
La Salle, who has been one of the more consistent Tier 3 schools, didn't yield a single run in their 2 victories in "A" Block. Hakodatedai Yuuto, who has had slightly more success, won "C" Block, but had to uncharacteristically hold on 5-4 against Hiyama Kita to do so.
Hakodate Kougyou rounds out the field, advancing out of "B" Block with a 4-1 win over Hakodatedai Hakuryou.