Longtime Genoa Little League president Lee Nissen is every bit as much a symbol of summertime in Genoa as anything else.
"I was actually 16 when I first got involved with Genoa Little League, and what happened was my dad (Bill) was working at Davis-Besse at the time, and of course that was right around the time Besse first began operating. So, he couldn't possibly coach the team he had committed to and he asked me to step in. I've been involved ever since, and it's been roughly 31 years," said the 48-year-old Nissen.
Nissen first donned the skipper's cap of that pioneering Genoa Twins Pee Wee team around 1978. He has stepped into the batter's box and taken his licks as umpire and public address announcer. He has been league president for approximately 11 years.
"Let me put it to you this way," chuckles the longtime resident of Clay Center, "It makes me feel really old when I think back to how Mike Gose was one of the first kids I ever coached and how now his own son Casey is playing shortstop for the Genoa High School varsity baseball team. So, that should give you some sort of indication of how long I've been at this. I've coached probably somewhere like 30 years in addition to the other stuff up at the park.
"You name it, I've probably done it," reflects Nissen, "But these days, I do try to stay out of the coaching side of things and just concentrate on being president. I've got more than enough great coaches, anyway, to handle all of the stuff out on the fields. And really, that's what's made Genoa Little League work as well as it has for all these years,
“I think, having great coaches, great players, and great local families with a passion for not only baseball, but really all youth sports around you and constantly supporting you. Because you know as well as I do, in Genoa everybody comes out for everything, whether it's baseball, football, basketball, or what have you. They come out year after year, and that's where you make your friends.
“I mean, I've made a ton of great friends down through all these years, and that's truly been the most fulfilling thing to me. Sometimes they're friends, maybe you wouldn't otherwise have expected to meet without baseball, but they're still friendships that last for a lifetime. It's all those friends who have made my job so fun and easy.
"It's funny, because I was talking to Jordan Diekman not long ago, who's been a good friend of mine and my vice president for so many years," he laughs again, "and he said to me, ‘The only reason you're still president is because you're just stupid enough to keep it.' And I don't know, maybe that's true.
“But I think another thing that keeps me going is that we're out there giving kids a chance to live their dreams. Genoa Little League gives the kids the chance to play the game of baseball, whether it's the kid who's simply fantastic, or the kid who's not all that great.
“Whether it be one base hit for a kid in a game or 12 home runs in a season, it's important for us to help kids have fun out there. It's important for us to help them make their own dreams come true. But, I wouldn't be able to be here, doing this, if it wasn't for our Lord and Savior. I put all of my faith in Him, and He guides me through this."
There were endless summers spent up at Veteran's Memorial Park during his own playing days in the '70s when he starred as a center fielder and scrappy pitcher for both the Genoa White Sox and Cubs. "A tiny lefty," he remembers, it was during his nights on the rubber that Nissen had the honor of witnessing firsthand the prowess of one of the best hitters to ever step up to the dish at then-Quarry Front Stadium (now Lou Thomas Field), in one Katsuo Williams.
Williams wielded power so awesome that he was often feared by opposing pitchers even as a little leaguer. The legend was known to crush an average of nearly one home run per game into the soybeans back when they played 12-game seasons.
Flashing forward another couple of years, Nissen would start to forge his reputation as a coach with the Twins. It wouldn't be long before he'd get to share the diamond with another Genoa Little League legend of sorts, Chris Baker.
A relatively-unknown player whom Lee would end up drafting, Baker would quickly become known around Quarry Front as one of the scrappy, sure-gloved second basemen and consistent two-hole hitters, while being female to boot. "Chris" stood for "Christina.” Nissen remains close to Baker's family to this day.
There have been chapters penned by Eric Wolfe, another of Genoa's most powerful hitters, who went on to rip the cover off the baseball at Malone College. Another chapter was penned by fellow Malone baseballer, and Lee's younger brother, Gary Nissen, who used his stint in Genoa Little League to becoming one of the best pitchers Genoa has ever known.
Gary had a four-year collegiate career with the Pioneers, and an all-star coaching resume, which has seen the younger Nissen serve as skipper of GLL coach-pitch teams, the organization's successful U-12 travel-ball team, and most-notably GHS's memorable varsity baseball team that went to state in '99.
There have been the McDaniel brothers, in Eric and the late Ryan, both of whom Lee remembers as such outstanding players all the way back to the times when he coached them in tee ball. They'd go on to shine in college ball as well as a third baseman and pitcher for Ashland and Tiffin respectively.
There has been Mike Thomas, one of the longtime driving forces behind Veteran's Memorial Park along with Padgett. Thomas is an athletic facilities manager and ringleader of the groundskeeping crew.
Some of the "first families" of youth sports in Genoa are the Pickerels, the Plantzes, and the Keatons, and many others. There have been the big names, like Mike Gose, Jimmy Plantz, Steve Smith, and Tommy Wojo, Wolfie, et al., who have carried on the torch as players, coaches, umps, PA announcers, and concession stand workers.
Perhaps they don't come much bigger than Bryan "Smoke" Smolinski, who Lee fondly remembers as a naturally-gifted ballplayer, where he dominated under coaches Rick Nowak and Tom Smolinski (his dad) for the Genoa pee wee Indians.
In fact, Bryan would regularly smash multiple home runs in a single game at the park; take home all the blue ribbons in the popular Brunner School track-and-field days; and during a junior high football game against Lakota at old Bergman Field (his teams went 14-0 over two years), he punted the ball, beat the coverage down the field, made the tackle, knocked the ball loose, and recovered the fumble for a touchdown.
Later, "Smoke" would go on to star as an All-Toledo City League catcher for Cardinal Stritch before enjoying a successful career as a journeyman center for the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, and Montreal Canadiens of the NHL (1992-2010).
There have been times where Nissen hasn't been necessarily as involved, like when Craig Dunn took over the reigns and was to bring the Willie Mays State Tournament to GLL, from 1998 to 2002. There's still a sign erected at the park to recognize Dunn's accomplishment.
Lee will tell you one of the most important accomplishments was bringing "travel ball" to Genoa, something he credits to Gose and a core group of other influential local baseball guys.
"Mike Gose deserves the credit for actually starting our first 10-and-under travel team here in Genoa," elaborates Lee.
Lee points out that longtime GLL coach Lester Meyer was a pioneer of travel baseball in G-Town, as Les helped develop the team which eventually went on to state with Gary Nissen at GHS by seeking out stiffer competition.
"Because it's when he was coaching ‘house ball’ for Casey, and kids like Logan Scott, and Sam Reinhart, and Jacob Young, and that whole group of guys, that he came to me, and said, ‘Look, these kids are beyond ‘house ball,’ Lee,” Lee Nissen said. “We need to get them into ‘travel ball.’ And that's how got our first 10-and-under travel team, to go along with the 12-and-under and 14-and-under travel teams we already had.
"But, what's happened in general is, after a number of years of only having ‘house ball’ for as long as anyone can remember, we started noticing that we were losing kids to travel teams being started by other leagues," he continues, "so as a league, we made a decision to make some changes, so we keep our own kids playing baseball right here for Genoa.
"Jordan Diekman, Dave Rymers, Brent Huston, Brett Scott, Todd Traver," starts Nissen, "they were all guys who were involved in this very important decision for Genoa Little League. And one thing the league wanted to make certain of was that every player who wanted to try out for ‘travel ball’ would be given an equal and fair chance. After that, it would be the coaches' decisions, but first and foremost it's about the kids, and everyone having a chance.
"For the kids who don't make the ‘travel ball’ rosters, there's of course the chance to play ‘house ball’ up at the park, where maybe a player can realize a dream of batting second in the order, or playing second base or shortstop, or leading his team in home runs, which is maybe something he doesn't get to do with the travel guys still standing in his way," he adds, extolling the virtues of both systems.
"And then for the travel kids, or those kids who want a little bit more out of their little league experience, they get the opportunity to travel throughout Northwest Ohio and play baseball. As I said, we have a U-10 team, which has been coached by Jeff Dominique, who was a baseball player at Bowling Green with all kinds of records, and he has just outstanding patience with those young kids.
“We have my brother Gary, along with Brett Scott, coaching our U-12's, and their goal is to pretty much build team continuity and skills and to stress doing everything right, so the kids are ready when they get to the high school level.
“Eric Wolfe has been a U-14 coach for us and he's taught the kids a ton about baseball and about hitting. We've even had a U-13 team, coached by Justin Atkins, who is a great young coach from a family with a great Genoa pedigree. I just think both systems work extremely well and complement one another. It's been all positive feedback.”
Which begs one more question to be asked. . .just how long do you plan on sticking around, Prez?
"How long will I stick around Genoa baseball yet," echoes Lee, "Well, that's not up to me, that's up to God. But, I think we're teaching our kids good life lessons, through Genoa Little League baseball. Lessons like how to win properly, and how to lose properly. Lessons like picking up your teammates, and even your opponents, when they've had a bad game, and are feeling down. And lessons like how to better handle disappointments, because let's face it, we all make mistakes — both out on that field and later on in life.
"I love seeing the kids have fun, while learning these lessons. I love going up to the park, and having all my lifelong friends come up to me, and give me hugs, and shake my hand, and give me a hard time. I love watching tee ball, because those games are a blast! I still love it all," says the prez, the contented, fulfilled glimmer of a child, dancing in the man's eyes. "God will tell me when to go, I'm sure of it. One day I'll wake up, and I'll be grumpy, and that'll sort of be the good Lord's way of saying, "Hey, it's time for you to go. You're not doing the program any good anymore." But that hasn't happened yet. I'm still having fun.
Lee Nissen. (Press photo by Ken Grosjean)