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By DANNY P. SMITH
Coach Randy Carlisle believes his Starkville 9-year-old All-Stars are as prepared to play in the Dizzy Dean State Tournament as it can be.
It's not because the squad has played in very many tournament games prior to the event, but Carlisle said there has been a great amount of time spent in practice on specific areas of the game.
The amount of reps the players get at the plate and in the field are very important aspects of improving in Carlisle's mind, who coached baseball and football on the high school level at Oak Hill Academy in West Point.
"Coming from coaching high school baseball and being a head football coach in the past, our practices are very structured as far as a 9-year-old kid looks at it and the parents too," Carlisle said. "Instead of one kid hitting and the rest of them go out and shag baseballs, then take a little infield and go home, I have three good assistants that break up into stations and when we hit, we're hitting it.
"We've got bat tees going; we've got side toss; we're hitting whiffle balls with smaller bats and hitting golf-ball sized whiffle balls with a bigger bat, and pitching all at one time. Standing around is a minimal and when we leave practice, it gripes me to see a kid only get 8-10 cuts at practice. We try to get 100-plus per player a day."
Once the All-Stars go through its hitting drills, Carlisle said the same approach is taken with the infield.
The goal for Carlisle is to not have one of the four infielders standing around.
"They are all catching, throwing and making the routine plays," Carlisle said. "We're hoping that will carry over from practice to the game. If you field a ground ball, the fundamentals of any of the four infield positions are the same."
Carlisle hopes all of the work pays off when the 9-year-olds play the second game today in Eupora against Louisville at 1 p.m.
After watching the South Carolina Gamecocks defend their national championship in college baseball on Tuesday night without having a true star player, Carlisle said there's no reason why his 9-year-old group can't win games and have a chance to win the state tournament.
"Their coach (Ray) Tanner may have said it better than anybody, I don't know if you can pick out any great stars of a 9-year-old team. It's just a bunch of kids that are solid, pretty good with knowledge of the game. They practice and play hard and they've really bought in to what we want to do over the last three weeks to get ready for this tournament."
The members of the 9-year-old All-Stars are Tanner Graves, J.T. Cox, Izak Hanson, Garrett Lewis, Jalen Bell, Braden Carlisle, Wes Prewitt, Zak Kelly, John Spearman, Evan Cook, David Coblentz and Ben Brown. Assisting Carlisle are John Cox, Larry Hanson and Jim Brown.
Carlisle said the strength of his squad may be pitching and has four hurlers that are capable of throwing strikes.
"You can't afford to give up walks, allow baserunners to get on and really force the issue," Carlisle said. "We've got four that we've been looking at in practice and one we think is really coming on late. HeÂ may not be that back-in-the-day (former Starkville High School pitcher) Chris Correro huge kid that just over-powers everybody, but if they throw strikes, it gives us a chance. That's what we've based our practice philosophy and games on."
Carlisle believes in going back to the basics and that approach will serve the 9-year-olds well.
"We've concentrated on making the routine plays," Carlisle said. "If you give us a ground ball, we expect it to be an out. If you hit a weak pop fly, we expect to get under it and make an out."
Jonathan Upchurch, the head coach of the Starkville 7-year-old All-Stars, looks for the team to find a streak of consistency at the state tournament in Louisville.
In two tournaments prior to state, Upchurch said Starkville had one poor weekend and one where it finished second.
Upchurch knows all of the players have to be on the same page, beginning today when the first game is played against East Central at 5:45 p.m.
"It's going to depend if they show up to play that day," Upchurch said. "There's a lot of great talent on the team, but they are 7 and if they don't show up, they don't show up."
Upchurch likes the make-up of the squad with a couple of 6-year-olds in the mix.
The members of the 7-year-old All-Stars are Will McReynolds, Harris McReynolds, Jamario Moss, Bailey Bostick, Koby Livingston, John Paul Yates, Randall Futral, Karsten Upchurch, Chipper Hornburger, Brody Bennett, Drew Williams and Will Wells. The coaches are Upchurch, Tom McReynolds, T.J. Kent and Jason Williams.
The Starkville 11-year-old All-Stars are also in Louisville today for its Dizzy Dean State Tournament. Their first game takes place at 2 p.m. against Tupelo.
Starkville coach Steve Wylie likes the chances for the All-Stars to have a successful run.
"We have a good shot of winning state," Wylie said. "We're real good defensive-wise and we have some good pitching this year."
The members of the 11-year-old All-Stars are Natrone Brooks, Austin Campbell, Ethan Evans, Brandon Gilliland, Brady Hunt, Carlos Kemp, Pitcher Rendon, Brady Richardson, Raegan Richardson, Noah Smith, Jacob Williams and Austin Wylie.