Making the trip to the Kentucky Little League state tournament is becoming an annual occurrence for one team from the area.
Fleming County’s 10-12 Little League team has played for the state title the last three years through different age levels and will be making their fourth straight trip to the state tournament, which is scheduled to begin Saturday in Lebanon.
“I think our kids are excited to get going. I think with the practices we’ve had this week our focus will be there and we’ll make a good showing,” said Fleming County Little League coach Travis Cropper. “We’ve had really good B.P. sessions, generally our defense is pretty stout and we look to compete. We may not come out on top all the time, but we’ll put together three tough ball games.”
The eight-team tournament is broken into two four-team pools. After teams in each pool play each other once, the top two from each will meet for a four-team, single-elimination final four. The winner of the state tournament will advance to the Great Lakes Region Tournament in Westfield, Indiana.
Fleming County fell in the state semifinals twice in the 9-10 age division and finished as the state runner-up last year in the 9-11 age division.
This year, they made it to the state tournament with the pressure on.
Entering expected to win District 6, the team fell in their first game of the double-elimination tournament to the team from Grayson. They were perfect from there, however, making it out of the area tournament and into the district final against Stan Spence Little League, which they won, 10-0, with the help of an offense led by a home run from Taylor Mattox and the pitching of Nate Ruark.
Ruark is expected to be the starting pitcher in Fleming County’s first game of the tournament against St. Matthews, the champion of District 2. First pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Saturday.
“Any time Nate goes out there we’re confident in what he’s going to give us,” said Cropper.
Depth on the mound will be crucial for teams in the tournament. They’ll play three pool play games in three days, with the semifinals and finals scheduled to be played the following two days. Fleming County’s second game is scheduled to be played against Warren County North, the District 1 champion, Sunday at 1 p.m. The third is set for Monday at 3 p.m. against Corbin, the District 4 champion.
“We were talking about that last night. You can’t plan too far ahead. You want to win games, but you can’t go out and throw your pitcher 85 pitches the first day, then have him done for the rest of the tournament,” said Cropper. You have to go with your gut and know when to trust other kids and what the best situation is to pitch other kids.”
Fleming County’s district championship game came on June 6, meaning they’ve had a couple of weeks off between games. Some do play on travel teams together, but they’ve also been meeting for practices to work on different aspects of their game, including taking batting practice off faster pitching and facing different off-speed pitches.
Still, it makes Cropper somewhat nervous not seeing actual game action for an extended stretch.
“To be honest, it does. During a couple of practices this week we did intrasquad scrimmaging. The coaches called pitches so the batters didn’t know what was coming. When we got beat by Grayson we were coming off a two-week layoff. We didn’t have game-speed stuff. We did intrasquad stuff, but as far as game play, we didn’t have any games,” said Cropper. “That creeps in my mind. Hopefully we learn from our mistake last time. If we lose one down here we’re not out, but you certainly dig yourself a hole.”
If Fleming County makes it out of their pool, they’ll play a semifinal on Tuesday. The semifinals are scheduled for 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with the championship game to be played at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
The group from Flemingsburg entered the area tournament aiming at taking advantage of the opportunities they had ahead, but the focused changed after a loss in the opening game of the tournament.
But after getting back on track, they’re excited to try to take that next step in another trip to the state tournament.
“Our speech had to change a little after that first game. We had to get into the mental toughness side little, dig a little and find that desire we had in the past. We wanted them to know the opportunity is still there, what’s achievable and what’s ahead if we want to go out and get it,” said Cropper. “At the same time we want them to realize what they’ve accomplished, but then not go down there and not show up. We want to come down and make a little noise again.”