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By JOEL COLEMAN
When the Starkville 10-year-old All-Stars take the field today in Columbus for the Dizzy Dean State Tournament, they'll do so with plenty of talent and loads of promise.
Yet moreso than any skill possessed, coach Jim Yates believes his team could find themselves benefitting from one key intangible factor when Starkville faces Pontotoc at 4 p.m.
"The attitude of this team and the attitude of the boys is one of the best I've ever been around," said Yates. "You've got a lot of guys who are great players and were the best players on their (regular season) teams. But they've come in with a real team-first attitude. It has been a real neat thing for me to watch.
"I've been around guys before who really feel like it's about me-first, but these guys have been so coachable and just willing to do whatever and go wherever."
The selflessness of the Starkville team has proved to be a much-needed quality according to Yates. Though his club's roster, like every all-star team, is loaded with top players, many members of the squad have been forced to change positions ahead of tournament play.
"We got into all-stars, and really every one of our guys were infielders," said Yates. "We had really no outfielders. But we've looked real good at every position so we're feeling pretty good about it."
While Starkville's demeanor may well prove to be a deciding factor for the group, Yates is under no illusions. He understands that his team still must perform on the field in order to be successful.
Luckily, Yates believes Starkville is in pretty good shape in that regard as well.
"We're pretty balanced overall," said Yates. "We've got some good bats. If the guys will just get up there and swing, we can hit the ball. Fielding-wise, we're pretty solid.
"What we're going to live or die by will be our pitching. That's going to be our key thing."
Win or lose however, Yates says he's had quite the experience guiding the Starkville team as he and assistant coaches Charles Gardner, Brian Bennett and Brad Smith have tried to build the squad into winners, but more importantly, into fine young men.
"We've tried to get the spiritual side of things in, about when we play, we're playing for the glory of God," said Yates. "That's helped us to see it's not about ourselves, it's about the team and how we play for the Lord. Seeing the attitude of the guys has just been an awesome thing for me to watch. That's going to go far in their lives in every way."
Members of the Starkville 10-year-old All-Star team include Foster Yates, Walker Tranum, J.T. Patterson, Peyton Poole, Jay Stewart, Ben Guest, Nason Heflin, Zack Tucker, Jonathan Evans, Cameron Gardner, Bates Bennett and Garrett Smith.
Keith Lawrence, head coach of the Starkville 8-year-old All-Stars, knows what his team is capable of as they begin play in the Dizzy Dean State Tournament today in Louisville at 3:45 p.m. against Caledonia.
After all, just one season ago, many of the same individuals that make up Lawrence's current unit put together quite the run.
"It's pretty much all the same guys that finished second in the state last year," said Lawrence. "They actually, last year, only lost the state by one run."
Lawrence is hoping his club can recapture that magic again this time. With another year's worth of experience and hard work behind them, Lawrence believes Starkville is ready to do just that.
"We've been playing youth travel ball all spring long, plus park ball," said Lawrence. "That's really helped us."
Coming into today, Lawrence believes his team boasts plenty of strengths both offensively and defensively, but he thinks it is his group's play in the field that may very well set them apart.
"There is no holes in our defense really," said Lawrence. "The outfield is really good and the infield is real solid. Most teams this age have pretty good infields, but their outfields can't really catch pop-ups. Our kids, routine plays and pop-ups, they make them."
Behind those gloves and a lineup that Lawrence believes in, Starkville could very well be on the verge of putting together a special run according to its head coach.
"I don't think there's another team that can really play with us if the kids all play together," said Lawrence.
The Starkville 8-year-old All-Star team consist of Sam Clark, Riley Dawkins, Cedrick Hines, Nyjal Johnson, Keyshawn Lawrence, Tae Lucious, Jackson Owen, Keyvon Pearson, Banks Perry, Ahmir Taylor, Thomas Tucker and Qae Williams.
Lawrence is assisted by Edward Shields, Terrell Johnson and Sean Owen.
Led by coach Brady Clark, the Starkville 12-year-old All-Stars begin Dizzy Dean State Tournament play today at Eupora, facing Greenwood at 10 a.m.
Assistant coach Chip Stevens says he hopes to see the team succeed over the course of the event after its many hours of hard work.
"We've got a great bunch of guys and they've all worked hard and they've all gotten better and they've been a joy to coach," said Stevens.
The Starkville 12-year-old All-Star team is made up of Tyler Stovall, Blake Miller, Tavian Clark, Keion Smith, Javian Sherman, Reid Stevens, R.J. Shelton, Mac Newell, Timothy Hogan, Luke Davis, Zyderick Collins, and Austin Burns.
Bradley Burns and Will Sanders also serve as assistant coaches.