Any team in any sport might expect that trying to win a championship on home turf could increase the pressure to do so, but winning that championship becomes more special, too. The members of the KAU 13U “Red” Team faced the pressure and now know that special feeling, too, after winning the 2014 Vance Cooper District 28 Championship at KAU’s Sinton Field, 13-8, over the Glenmoore-Eagle Youth Association (GEYA).
For the KAU Little League, hosting the Vance Cooper Tournament has its own special distinction. Cooper helped build the lower field at the KAU Stoney Marston Complex. He also coached for many years for KAU and in Avon Grove. His sons and grandsons still participate in KAU baseball.
“Like many teams in the tournament, a core group of this team had played in Districts before, so about a half-dozen of them had an idea of what to expect,” said Assistant Coach Ken Dillon. “I think the team realized they were expected to do well because the tournament was on their home field. Every time they got behind in a game, they might have felt some pressure, but I think instead they just got mad at themselves and decided to start hitting.”
Although the KAUers went undefeated through the tournament, they were tested by GEYA in the championship and had to survive a scrappy Caln team in the semifinals. In both games, KAU Red had to come back to take the lead. And in each game, the Red squad depended on one inning to make the difference between winning and losing.
“I told them that the only team who could beat them was themselves,” said Manager David Smiddy. “I told them it didn’t matter what the talent was on the other teams, how many players the other teams had or what the scores of the other teams games were, I just kept reminding my players that the only team that could beat them was themselves.”
In the championship game against GEYA, KAU was down 5-2 after four innings. But the Red squad came back in a big way: 11 runs in the home half of the fifth inning. Corbin Barnett led off with a walk, stole a base and scored on Jake Abrams’ single. Tait Mott and Garrett Pinkston also walked, loading the bases. Michael-Walter Dillon hit a three-run double to give KAU the 6-5 lead. John Vogel singled in another run, but was caught between first and second base for a double play when Colin Querey flied out to the GEYA centerfielder.
With two outs, KAU began another rally. Thomas Smiddy and Shane Lyons both singled, and Barnett promptly sent them home with a triple to put KAU Red on top, 9-5. Barnett scored on Abram’s second base hit of the inning. Abrams scored via a single by Mott as well and walks by Pinkston and Walter-Dillon ended the scoring in KAU’s decisive 11-run inning.
Glenmoore-Eagle did not go away in the top of the sixth. When Querey, KAU’s starting pitcher, left the game after throwing his mandatory 85 pitches, reliever Vogel walked the bases loaded and watched as all three of those base runners scored before he recorded a strikeout to end the inning.
In the top of the seventh, GEYA’s leadoff batter singled and the next batter worked a 3-2 count. Had Vogel walked that batter, Manager Smiddy said he would have replaced Vogel on the mound. But second baseman Thomas Smiddy kept Vogel right where he was, snagging a line drive and catching GEYA’s leadoff hitter off first base for a double play. A dirt-flying scoop at first base by Querey on a throw from shortstop Mott ended the game and sealed the championship.
“What impressed me the most wasn’t just how the team played, but what the team did after winning the championship,” Dillon said, “They hopped around as a group a little bit, but there was no big celebration right away because someone whispered ‘sportsmanship, we have to shake their hands,’ and they lined up on the baseline. It showed me a level of maturity that you like to see in boys this age.”
To ensure its spot in the championship, KAU Red followed nearly the same script against Caln in the semifinal, using a multiple-run inning to win the game. But against Caln, that big inning nearly wasn’t enough.
Down just 1-0 after three innings, KAU plated nine runs in the visitor’s half of the fourth. The top five hitters in the lineup — Mott, Pinkston, Walter-Dillon, Vogel and Querey — rewarded their six through nine hitters and pinch hitters — Lyons, Smiddy, Abrams, Joey MacMillan, Dylan Blackburn and special pinch runner extraordinaire Matt Hauptschein — for “setting the table.” Each of the top five hitters knocked in runs with singles and also scored to give KAU a short-lived 9-1 lead.
Caln turned around in the bottom of the fourth and plated four runs of its own. The teams traded single runs in the sixth inning. KAU led 10-6 going in to the seventh.
A single run in the top of seventh inning was the eventual game-winner for KAU. With two out, Walter-Dillon singled, stole second and scored on a double by Querey. Caln created just enough drama in the bottom of the seventh. After starting pitcher Lyons left the game, Walter-Dillon sandwiched two outs among four base hits by Caln, who cut the lead to 11-10. Walter-Dillon threw three pitches to strike out the last batter and send KAU Red to the championship.