VANCEBURG – Nate Ruark threw nine pitches in the first inning for Fleming County Little League and struck out three batters.
His counterpart, Ethan Gibson of Stan Spence Little League, only required two pitches to record his first two outs.
But breaking up the pitchers’ duel was Taylor Mattox, who launched a solo home run with two down to ignite an eight-run rally in the bottom of the first that powered Fleming County to a four-inning, 10-0 victory in the District 6 Little League championship game in the 10-12 age division on Friday.
“I hit it and everybody else just sparked,” said Mattox. “It just happened.”
For the group of kids from Fleming County, it’s the fourth straight trip to the state tournament. They made it twice playing in the 9-10 age group and fell in the semifinals both years. Last year, playing in the 9-11 age group, they finished as the state’s runner-up.
This year, their focus was taking advantage of the opportunities that were ahead, which could include playing in the Great Lakes Region Tournament in Westfield, Indiana, if they can make it out of pool play and win semifinal and final games at the state tournament in Lebanon, which is scheduled to begin on July 21.
Before that, they had to make it through a double-elimination area tournament – the district is broken up into two areas and the winners face off – and Fleming County got off to a rocky start by losing their tournament opener to the team from Grayson.
“They dug down and we had a refocus talk and after that we rolled off a – I guess that’s five in a row now,” said Fleming County coach Travis Cropper. “They found their focus again and got the job done.”
After four straight wins to reach the district championship, Mattox wasn’t going to let an opportunity to get back to the state tournament pass him by.
The catcher took an outside pitch with two-strikes over the left field fence to give his team a 1-0 lead, as well as a spark.
“It wasn’t my favorite pitch to go for – it was outside – but I took it that way and I know as soon as it hit off the bat it was gone,” said Mattox. “It felt good off the bat and I was just in the moment.”
Fleming County had batting cages put in this spring, and Cropper felt before the area tournament that the improvement he saw at the plate could help his team reach the state tournament and possibly beyond.
“We went to our batting cage today before we played. We got up there at three o’clock and everybody got two or three rounds of hitting in. We did that in the area championship game against Grayson,” said Cropper. “I think the results show for themselves.”
The home run was followed by an RBI double from Keaton Donahue, a two-run single from Jordan Howard, a two-run triple from Cole Horst, an RBI single from Seth Hickerson and a triple from Brady Faris that brought home Fleming County’s eighth run of the first inning.
The team based out of Flemingsburg added two more against Stan Spence in the bottom of the third to make it a 10-0 game and create an opportunity to end it the next inning if Ruark could hold the opposition scoreless.
It’s something the right-hander had done all day, starting with his perfect first inning against the batters he pitched to. Fleming County did issue an intentional walk with two down, but pitching to Mattox, Ruark got the third batter swinging.
“We’ve been best friends since day one,” said Ruark. “It’s just amazing the bond we’ve grown together.”
Ruark walked two batters in the bottom of the second, but his high heat added three more strikeouts to his total. After an intentional walk, he allowed his only hit of the game in the third with a single from Cody Miller to put runners on the corners, but got the next batter to fly out.
It was just finishing off one of the opportunities the team had talked about leading up to the tournament in the final inning.
And he did just that, catching a pop up just off the mound and striking out the next two batters to close out the victory.
“It’s great because we play travel on the weekends and he pitches some there too and we just know – I know where he’s going to pitch it, I know where he’s good at pitching it and we just work so good together,” said Mattox. “Nate’s a great pitcher.”
Fleming County will join a pool featuring the winners from District 2, District 4 and District 1. If they hold one of the two best records after pool play, they’ll advance to a single-elimination final four. Their pool-play games are scheduled for 10 a.m. on July 21, 1 p.m. on July 22 and 3 p.m. on July 23.
The state semifinals are scheduled to be played on July 24 at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., and the state championship game is scheduled for 7 p.m. on July 25.