FLEMINGSBURG – With their televisions tuned into ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC during the waning days of summer vacation, many young baseball players will have their eyes glued to the screen while they dream of playing in the Little League World Series.
One group from Fleming County has made it to Kentucky’s eight-team state tournament the last three years, and this year they’re hoping to take advantage of the opportunity to possibly claim the state title, advance to regional play and possibly end up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“I always give a little talk and I try to emphasize just the opportunities that they have. This year, we have the opportunity – last year we had a taste of the championship game – this year, if we’re able to win the state tournament, we’ll go on to play in the Great Lakes Region, which you see on TV,” said Travis Cropper, the coach of the team. “That’s why I kind of try to stress that, like, ‘Look, you can do something nobody’s ever done before. Don’t let that get past you.’”
To reach the pinnacle of youth baseball, the Fleming County squad will first have to make it out of their district. There are seven districts in Kentucky. The Fleming County team plays in District 6 with 12 other teams.
The district is split into two areas. Each area will play a double elimination tournament, which begin Monday, and the winners will meet to decide a district champion. If the two teams that win each area go unbeaten through area play, they’ll play a best-of-three series to decide who’ll go on to the state tournament.
The winners from each of the seven districts, as well as the host district’s runner-up, will meet for the state tournament, in which the eight teams are divided into two four-team pools. The top two from each pool face off in a single elimination tournament to determine the state champion.
The Fleming County players have mostly stayed together throughout the different age groups. In 2015, the team made it to the state tournament in the 9-10 age division. They went 2-1 in pool play, before falling in the semifinals. In 2016, in the same age group, they went 3-0 in pool play before falling in the semifinals for the second straight year.
Last year, while playing in a 9-11 age division, Fleming County made it to the tournament after staying undefeated in district play. They dropped a game in pool play to Warren County South, but advanced to the single elimination final four. The won their semifinal matchup, before finishing runner-up to Warren County South, 6-1.
“They’ve advanced out of pool play each year and had the opportunity to go to the four-team, single elimination tournament,” said Cropper. “They were essentially one of the top four teams in the state the last three years.”
If they make it to the state tournament again, they’ll be heading to Lebanon to take on the winners from District 2, District 4 and District 1 in pool play.
The group – essentially an all-star team of players from their five-team league – consists mostly of kids from around Fleming County, but also includes a couple from Mason County as there’s currently no Little League program there. There are 13 players on the roster, and each has to see action in games, according to Little League rules.
One rule, according to Cropper, allows you to “marry” a player to another, so he’s able to put his best nine defensive players on the field and, while everybody needs to bat once, can allow his best offensive players to hit more.
“I’ve learned a lot along the way,” said Cropper. “That rule, it’s a tough interpretation. I got schooled on it a couple years ago, so ever since then I’ve been using it to my advantage.”
And while coaching strategy plays a role, Cropper, a 1998 graduate of Fleming County who played shortstop for the Panthers, tries to prepare his players for the next level, instead of preparing them to just win at the level they’re at.
“The same things I’d teach a high schooler are the same things I try to teach these kids right now. They’re 11 and 12 years old now, but once they get to high school here in two or three years, those aren’t kids you’ll have to try to recoach or break bad habits they’ve developed,” said Cropper. “I’m trying to teach them fundamentals that they’re going to carry on for the rest of their career.”
The defensive skills they’ve developed are what the coach believes to be this team’s strength. They did have some batting cages built this spring, which Cropper believes could help their hitting and, in turn, help them take that next step.
“You always hear that defense wins championships and we stress defense a lot,” said Cropper. “To be honest … I feel like our hitting is a little more advanced than it has been at this point. I’m looking for that to be a little better this year, so maybe that’ll be enough to get us to that next step.”
For some teams playing at the Little League World Series – Fleming County could reach that point by winning the Great Lakes Region Tournament, which begins August 5, in Westfield, Indiana – a couple of standout players lead the teams.
But for Fleming County, being well-rounded has led to their success.
“You see the kids on there throwing the equivalent of 100 miles per hour and we don’t have anything close to that, I don’t think,” said Cropper. “It’s just a good group. They go out there and they make plays. It’s not spectacular things for winning teams, it’s just doing little things right. I feel like this team is pretty good at that.”
The team had practices scheduled throughout the week before taking the field next week in Vanceburg, where they’ll try to work on capturing another district title and use their experience to take advantage of the opportunities they have ahead.
“Some of these kids have been on this team for three years now, and I think that past experience – the deer in the headlights look, it’s not there anymore,” said Cropper. “They kind of know what to expect once they get to the state tournament and I think they’re ready.”