CHEROKEE — What was once a dream has now become a reality for the Cherokee 12-and-under all-star team, as the Lancers punched their ticket to Indianapolis for the Little League Midwest Regional Tournament after winning the state championship on July 22 in Baxter Springs.
An early loss to Baxter in the district tournament acted as motivation for the Lancers, who bounced back with a pair of wins over the Lions to take home the state title and get a chance to compete for a spot in the Little League World Series.
“They’ve been looking forward to this all year,” Cherokee assistant coach Mark Scales said. “When we lost to Baxter the first time, that’s when we realized we were going to have to work a little bit harder and come together. After we won state, they’ve been ready to get after it and practice really hard. It fires them up to think about competing at the next level.”
A loss to Baxter in districts put the Lancers behind the eight ball, but a win over Riverton pitted them in rematch with Baxter for the state championship.
“Our group is a combination of two teams and we hadn’t really played much together at all,” Scales said. “Some of the kids had played with each other, but it wasn’t the entire group, so it was a little bit of challenge getting started. We struggled at the plate against Baxter the first time we played them and only had two hits. We were kind of let down, but the kids regrouped in the win against Riverton.”
The Lancers rallied late in game one of two against Baxter, winning 9-6 on the strength of a three-run home run by of Cooper Hamblin in the sixth inning.
“I started Cooper Hamblin in the first game and he pitched really well,” Cherokee head coach Broc Burdette said. “He kept us in the game and then I was able to bring Cade Burdette in to close, who still had him to pitch in Saturday’s game. Cooper throwing 85 pitches and keeping us in the game was huge.”
Cherokee ended any potential drama by winning the second game 10-0 by run rule after the fourth inning.
“Cade’s pitching and his home runs led us to the win,” Broc Burdette said. “He only allowed one hit and the defense didn’t commit a single error, which is what kept the momentum on our side.”
Although there was a feeling of accomplishment after winning state, the Lancers knew a bigger challenge awaits them in Indianapolis.
“We’re going to go up against some kids who have probably played together for a long time and the coaches are choosing all-star teams from hundreds of players, while we’re choosing from about 20,” Scales said. “Some of our kids are at different skill levels, but every one of them has contributed. They do the best they can and work to get better. They all have different strengths and it took us a while to find out what positions to play the kids at, but they’re all picking up on it and doing what they need to do. The main key is to keep mistakes to a minimum.”
Despite the disadvantage of being from a small town, the Lancers believe they have just as good of a chance as any other team.
“We have a few kids who play a lot of travel ball and they’re probably the better players on the team because they get more reps,” Broc Burdette said. “The other kids all do their part and if we don’t commit any errors, get up there with confidence and hit the ball, we’ll succeed.”
“We have probably five or six kids who could hit a home run or hit the ball hard at any time,” Broc Burdette said. “There are some other kids who bunt really well and hit a single or sacrifice fly when you need it. We just have kids who work hard in practice, do what they’re supposed to do and want to win.”
Regardless of the outcome, the kids will come home with lifelong memories.
“The kids will have a ball,” Broc Burdette said. “I’ve been there and I know what it’s like. It’s very exciting for the kids and even the coaches. There’s a lot of kids on our team who probably haven’t been outside of Kansas, so they’re pretty excited about making the trip and seeing a bigger city like Indianapolis.”
To help fund the trip, the Lancers are hosting a chicken dinner at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Cherokee Little League fields with several prizes to be raffled off.
“It’s pretty expensive to go up there and the kids have really been active in the fundraiser,” Scales said. “They’ve been going out to the businesses and talking to people at the fairs in an effort to help raise money. It’s really helped pull the kids together as a team.”
With the excitement of playing in Indianapolis against some of the best teams in the country building, the Lancers have gone all in.
“We’re going one way or the other, but we there’s just a lot of expenses and the league can’t really afford it,” Scales said. “We’re a non-profit group and we don’t really have enough funds to make the trip, so we’re trying to raise some money. The kids are really doing a good job and we’re going to get them there. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the kids.”
Playing in the Midwest Regionals is not only a great experience for the kids on the team, but it also inspires the younger ones who come behind them.
“I hope it helps us grow our little league,” Scales said. “Hopefully, the younger kids will see the opportunity is there to go participate. If you win in regionals, you get on a chartered bus to go play in the World Series. That’s a lofty goal, but I don’t think it’s out of reach for these kids to win some games and do some good. We’ll see what happens and I know they’ll do the best they can, but whatever the outcome is, just the experience of being there and playing in that type of atmosphere is going to be great for them.”
Cherokee will be representing Kansas in game one against North/South Dakota at 1 p.m. on Sunday in Indianapolis.
— Jordan Buckamneer is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jbuckamneer.