There were many reasons for area Little League players, coaches, organizers, parents and fans to be happy this summer.
Throughout the Illinois Valley, two teams won state championships and four more earned District 20 banners.
The Oglesby Junior League baseball team - which begins the Central Region Tournament today - and the Mendota Junior League softball squad won state championships. The Peru Minor League baseball club won a D20 title and won their sub-state bracket, while Peru Senior League baseball, Bi-County Little League softball and Mendota Minor League softball were all district champions.
With all of the success, the NewsTribune caught up with the team’s coaches to discuss all things Little League.
NewsTribune: Winning a title with an all-star team isn’t easy since there isn’t much time for practice or to build chemistry between a town’s regular season and the district tournaments where each league selects an All-Star team of the town’s best talent. What worked for you and your team this summer?
Jeff Puyear (Peru Senior League baseball): This year was kind of tough because we combined with Oglesby and Bi-County. We’ve never been with Oglesby before. They’ve always had good teams and you can see it again with the Junior League team winning state. We couldn’t put a Senior League team together and Oglesby couldn’t put one together, so ‘Why don’t we combine.’
We decided to go with 16 kids this year and it seemed to help us out because we had a lot of kids who could play different positions and play in the infield or the outfield. We had a lot of pitchers and were three or four deep at catcher. In the long run, we just had more depth compared to the other teams in the D20 bracket.
Mike Argubright (Peru Minor League baseball): We have a great group of kids that I coached as 8-year olds and now as 10-year olds. They’ve definitely come a long way. We knew they were a special team of 8-year olds when we won the Ottawa 8-year old All-Star Tournament. We couldn’t wait until we got back here as 10-year olds to play some baseball.
We had some really good practices and once we started to gel, we thought we had a chance to go deep. Going to state was a bonus. Coming out of the district was a special moment to see all of the kids running around the diamond holding the banner. That’s a great moment that I’ll never forget.
Tom Tunnell (Oglesby Junior League baseball): It’s a really cool experience. We’ve been coaching most of these boys for the past six years. It’s a lot of fun and I think the boys have really enjoyed it. I think Little League baseball gives the boys an opportunity to get to know each other.
That’s what brings the team together, especially with this group. We did some travel baseball and Little League baseball together — combined — and their really good friends now.
Rob Spratt (Bi-County Little League softball): You have to make it fun for them. They have to understand it’s just a game and it’s meant to be for fun. They all know how to play softball. They know how to field it and hit it. They’re all talented and you have to stress that to them. They’re playing for each other, not just for the game.
I always tell them that they’re backing up third base or backing up somebody because they’re backing up their friend, partner and teammate — not because that’s what you’re told to do. The kids establish a bond and become a family. You make it fun for the kids and about the sport, not winning and losing. I think that’s what’s bringing success; the kids are having fun and playing a game.
Larry Klema (Mendota Junior League softball): When we came home Sunday night from Indianapolis (Central Softball Regional), the girls wanted to practice. I said, ‘Little League is over’ and they said again, ‘We want to practice.’ When we had our drafts for Mendota Junior League, we tried to split the teams fairly even where each team had a couple of pitchers and at least one catcher. We balanced the teams out so the girls would have some fun because no one wants to lose every game.
Tony (Jones), who coached the other Junior League team in Mendota, and I had one practice with our teams by ourselves and then we practiced together for the rest of the year. That was in our benefit when all-stars came around because I knew the other girls from the other team and they knew me. I think that was key to our success.
Chawn Huffaker (Mendota Minor League softball): We’re lucky here in Mendota because we’re in a small enough town where we know each other. Whether they go to Holy Cross, Northbrook or Lincoln — depending on the age level — we’re in a small enough town where all the girls know each other.
The other nice thing we had going on for Minor League softball is Shawn Soliman, who coached the other Minor League team in Mendota, and I have been coaching partners for multiple years. We knew ahead of time, ‘This is what we want to teach both teams’ and our ultimate goal was to get to the all-star tournament. We taught and coached them the same things. For us to put together a Minor League All-Star team together it really wasn’t that difficult because the girls were able to understand what we were saying.
NT: Young kids can be both a delight and a handful. How was coaching a group of kids throughout the summer?
Argubright: This particular group has a lot of passion and they came in with a lot of knowledge about baseball. Our job as coaches was to refine that knowledge. I would say my top five kids are extremely knowledgeable and the with the rest of the kids we had to spend more time on more fundamental things such as hitting the cut-off guy from the outfield, running bases with two outs and the rest of the little things that are not necessarily taught during the city ball regular season.
But overall with the 15 kids we had, it was just refining. It wasn’t a lot of teaching, it was polishing up things a little bit and getting them to do the things we needed them to do.
Spratt: You get emotionally attached to them. You can feel when they’re starting to feel hurt or they’re not doing well. You can see it. You have to go out and explain to them that it’s a game. When they’re crying and when they’re upset, the emotional attachment is huge for a coach.
You get attached to them and you don’t want to see them hurt, but you love to see them happy. You, as a coach, have to make sure you control your emotions for them. If you’re nervous, they’re nervous. If you’re calm, they’re calm. If you’re yelling and screaming, they’re yelling and screaming. I try to think about them first and how they feel. I look at them like they’re my kids and I want to make sure they’re OK and having fun.
Huffaker: Minor League is a fun age (8-10 years old) because their just learning the game. They have enough skill that you can teach some bigger things such as bunting. You can teach them base running strategies. They’re like sponges. They just want to play and have fun. And we try to make it fun.
We have that mentality of we are here to have fun. We’re not here to win every single game. Is winning great, absolutely, but as long as we play hard and do things right for the team, good things will happen.
NT: What does a Little League team winning a district or state championship do for the community?
Puyear: I grew up playing in Peru my whole life. When we were younger, all the kids I played with always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to play in Central States?’ When I was a kid, we didn’t have the park in Oglesby. We would actually house the kids who came from other states to play in the tournament.
When I was a kid and had those kids over, I remember thinking, ‘This is really cool. I want to do that.’ I didn’t really think we were going to move on to the World Series, but I thought this was going to be something special for all of the boys. A lot of us in the area, have seen other kids and teams be part of that and this time, it was our kids being the District 20 team in the tournament. It was special.
Tunnell: There has been a lot of congratulations sent to the players and to the coaches. There has been a lot of recognition. I think there is a lot of excitement about what’s going to happen. I think the kids feel like famous people now because people are talking to them when they’re walking around town. They’re proud of themselves and they’re really excited.
Huffaker: Mendota was buzzing like crazy when the Junior League team was in Indiana playing in the Central Regional Tournament. It was nuts. They were so close to the World Series. That’s our community right now. It’s all about building the program.
NT: The wins and championships are fun for all. But as a coach, is it difficult to deal with young kids when they’re eliminated from the tournament and summer baseball/softball is over?
Puyear: It was difficult. The team we had this year had 16 kids and 14 of them were first-year Senior League kids. With the way kids are being moved around to different leagues because of ages, most of our kids had one year of Junior League and were then put in Senior League. When we were at the Central Region parade, we were looking at Wisconsin, Ohio and all the teams that were there and we said, ‘Wow, these guys are huge.’
We have kids who just finished up their freshman year. The tough part was to get the kids to believe that they could do it. Our two captains - Drew Lane and Logan Jones - played in the Central Region last year for the Peru team. After we won District 20, I pulled them aside and told them, ‘You guys are our experience. You guys know what’s going on and what to expect. This is your team.’
It was tough for the kids, but having Drew and Logan take that role made it easier for them to understand what was going on because their peers were leading them.
Argubright: Our toughest test was at state. We came out and won the first game handily as we pitched, fielded and hit well. The challenge was Game 2 where we were challenged physically and mentally. Our pitching struggled in Game 2 and Game 3 where we were offering too many free bases, which put a ton of pressure on our defense.
Game 2 was an emotionally roller coaster that we tried to keep in check as much as possible. There was a lot of disappointment because we knew we could compete with the other team, but we beat ourselves.
Spratt: You have to tell them what they accomplished. You stress what they have already done, not what’s going to happen tomorrow. We stress one play and one game at a time. Their goal was to win District 20 and place well at state. It didn’t happen, but they played heart out. I told them, ‘As long as you know you played your best, the rest doesn’t matter.’
They were upset after the last game, but (Pike County) just got done playing at nationals. It’s hard to tell them that then, but they got beat by a really good team. They will take in the moment and remember 10 or 15 years later that they won the District 20 title and went to state with their friends. They will always have that bond together.
Huffaker: We keep the same message about having fun and it’s not all about winning and losing. When it’s over, we add, ‘This isn’t it girls. Take a week off and then get your gloves back out. You have to play catch. We just don’t pick up the ball when Little League tryouts come around.’
NT: With more and more emphasis being put on travel league sports, do you think there is still an importance for Little League?
Tunnell: I absolutely think it’s important. It gives all of the boys a chance to play. When you get into city ball, all the friends from school get a chance to play with each other. It gives everyone a chance to develop and you never know who is going to develop.
Klema: If you want to go to the next level, travel ball is where to go. But there is a lot of these kids who just like softball and they want to play softball but not year round. City ball is beneficial to them. The key is, you have to have coaches that know what they’re doing. Thankfully, there are parents that volunteer and help because we wouldn’t have a lot of these teams and sports without them.
It really helps if they take the time to do the research and teach the kids the proper way. Sometimes the kids fight you a little bit when you’re trying to help their game, but they’ll come around and realize we’re trying to help them.
Huffaker: It’s difficult for me because my daughter (Emma) plays for the Starved Rock Bandits. She wanted to play Little League this year and I highly encouraged her to play. These are her friends. These are the people she sees. It’s important to play town ball because it helps build community and it helps build structure with young kids.
The travel league coach understood and was flexible. There were some nights were Emma had to chose because she had a city game and a travel game. She chose and that was absolutely fine. Travel ball is important, too, because it exposes you to different competition and sometimes better competition. Which makes you come back to city ball after playing tougher competition and you’ll play at a higher level.
NT: With Little League teams having this type of success across the area, what does it mean for the future of baseball and softball in the Illinois Valley?
Argubright: Developing players to be their best means the world to me. Seeing these kids grow over the last two years — seeing them maturing, understanding the game better and getting physically bigger — is a gift that I can’t replace. It’s a joy for me to coach them. We have a ton of fun with them because they don’t only take baseball serious, but they also have fun with it. The sky is the limit for this group.
I can’t wait to see them in Little League and on from there. With the track that they’re on, I can see them competing for districts and state titles in the future.
Spratt: Bi-County is fantastic. All of the Tonica girls are well disciplined and well coached. They don’t just play during the summer, they play all of the time. Putnam County girls are the same way. The coaches care about the kids and the kids know it. It makes it easier for the kids to learn from them.
All of the teams are good in the area because all of the coaches care. All of the parents work together and keep their kids playing. The Illinois Valley has a deep talent pool. It’s a mecca right now that is really putting out a lot of really good teams.
Klema: The younger teams are coming around real nice. It all comes down to pitching. If you don’t have anyone who can throw the ball, you can’t do a whole lot. They’re develop is coming along. That’s one reason I got into Little League — I’ve been helping at the high school for years — is to get kids doing the same thing that they’re doing at the high school. It makes (Mendota coach) Joel Perez’s job a lot easier when they get there.
Huffaker: Soliman and I both took the high school program approach to our Minor League teams this summer. When it came to base running, we were teaching the same things. When it came to hitting, we were teaching the same things. We were teaching the same strategies. We have a great spring board with this Minor League group of girls because they tasted success.
We have a good board in place that’s very supportive of the coaches. We have good coaches from the Instructional League all the way to the Major League and the Junior League. We all have the same mentality, which is to teach the kids to be successful just like the juniors were. That’s the community aspect of it. We’re here to teach our kids so we can have success later.
Brandon LaChance can be reached at 220-6995, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_LaChance.