By all accounts, one Mesa Little League made history when it hit the trifecta this month.
Three teams from Red Mountain American Little League — one in each division — won a District 7 championship and next will be competing in the Little League state tournaments held throughout the Grand Canyon State this week.
The 9-and 10-year-old Minors All Stars will be in Show Low beginning Thursday, the 11- and 12-year-old Mid-Majors All Stars began in Kingman Monday, and the 11- and 12-year-old Majors All Stars will begin their tournament today in Tucson.
It is the first time the league, first formed in 2005, has had a team from each of its three divisions participating in the state tournament, a double-elimination format. This year also marks the first appearance in the state tournament by the league’s majors team. Majors is the level that — should a team make it that far — could compete in Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series championship.
Billed as underdogs, the young Red Mountain players may not be on baseball cards — yet. But at this stage of the game, their young careers are taking off in a tournament where they can begin to get noticed for their baseball-playing skills.
Mark Yarbrough, the administrator for Arizona’s District 7 Little League, said all three teams heading to the big show have talented players.
“In all three cases, I actually felt they were the underdog, but they stepped up their game and came to the field to play, and it showed,” Yarbrough said.
A “Major” victory
The Red Mountain American Majors will face McCormick Ranch Today to open state tournament play.
Pitchers Alec Blakeman and Ethan VanDemark combined for the win in the Majors district championship game two weeks ago, an 8-6 thriller against Mesa’s North Central Little Leauge All Stars. With Blakeman and VanDemark solidifying things on the mound, the team will continue to count on those trademark line drives from Jared Wiley, Mack Klafter and Jake Shackelford.
Coach Brian Shackelford said he hopes his team continues to be the scoring machine that it has been. The team won all five of its games through the district tournament posting four run rules — when a game is called become one team is leading by 10 or more runs at the end of the fourth inning — in the process.
Power hitting is no stranger as well, with nine of the 11 players on the Majors team hitting home runs during the league’s regular season, Shackelford said.
“We definitely have our work cut out for us,” Shackelford said. “There are going to be some tough teams at state, that’s for sure, and we’ve got to continue playing well to win. We’ve been playing exceptionally well, hitting the heck out of the ball and we have some strong pitching.
“Our catchers also did an outstanding job during the tournament,” Shackelford added of Luke Hyzdu and C.J. Sembaluk.
If the Majors win a state championship, they would advance to the western regional tournament. The winner there would go to Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
On the defense: Mid-Majors “hold the fort”
Under coach Mike McNeal, Tyler Kott, Matt Howat, Troy Bendon, Dominic Romero and Eliot Baker helped to lead their team known for its scrap and hustle in the Mid-Majors Division to the district championship with a heart-stopping 11-10 victory over Four Peaks Little League at Mesa’s Countryside Park. The Red Mountain team won the championship game behind the combined pitching efforts of Kott and Howat staving off a Four Peaks rally in the bottom of the sixth inning at the end of the game. The Mid Majors won four games at districts and enter the state tourney at 4-0.
Red Mountain was leading 11-3 going into the bottom of the sixth, but Four Peaks rattled off seven more runs in their last at bat.
But that rally ended when Four Peaks’ last batter struck out, hitting a foul tip that landed in Romero’s catcher’s mitt.
“It was a pretty good game,” Coach Mike Neal said. “We’ve been giving it our all. Our defense was pretty solid and we had stellar pitching. Our pitching staff hardly gave up any walks during districts and our bats came alive.”
“If I had to write a screenplay about these kids, it’d make a good movie,” McNeal added.
Attributing his team’s success to a lot of good at-bats throughout the district tournament and the go-to pitching of, Bendon also punctuated the offense by hitting two home runs.
“Here we are still playing baseball, our season has extended to state, and that’s pretty cool,” McNeal said.
No “Minor” feat
The 9-10 Minors All-Stars are returning to state for the second straight year.
In their district championship game, they staved off a rally by Apache Junction and advanced by winning that game, 8-7 and advance to state with a 4-1 record.
Three different pitchers in the game pulled together for the victory for the Minors, which Coach Mike Grooms described as well-rounded with a strong line-up and a good core of pitchers.
“Everybody contributed to the win whether by making a great catch or scoring an RBI,” Grooms said. “Defensively, I think we’re very strong. It took a team to do it.”
In all, Red Mountain American Little League hopes to pull off the trifecta again by each winning a state championship.
“(League president) Steve Slonaker has done a great job of running the league and coaches Mike Grooms, Mike McNeal and Brian Shackelford also have done a great job in encouraging these young athletes to do their very best,” Yarbrough said.
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