Starkville Little League Baseball is making the trip to Waco, Texas, for the Little League Southwest Regional tournament. This is the second year in a row Starkville has qualified for the tournament, and the team is playing for a shot at the Little League World Series in Williamsport later this month.
Starkville opens tournament play at 10 a.m. Thursday against Eastdale Little League from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Starkville qualified to represent Mississippi in Waco by sweeping their way through a four-team, double-elimination state tournament in July in Hattiesburg. They won three straight games and clinched a trip to Waco with a 6-0 victory and a no-hitter from pitcher Jack Northcutt.
Now, in Texas, the team is experiencing the excitement of the big stage and the attention of the national media. The first round of games will be available for streaming on the Longhorn Network, and starting Sunday, games will be broadcast on ESPN.
“It’s been great,” head coach Trey Schilling said of the pre-tournament festivities. “We got out here yesterday, and today we went through the opening ceremonies, we got a practice in, and we got to meet with ESPN. I think they had a good time with it, and they got a chance to show their wild side.”
Last year Starkville’s team only got through one game in Waco before learning the unfortunate news that they would have to head home because of positive COVID-19 tests. It was a big disappointment for the players who worked so hard to get there, but a few of them are still in the team this year and ready to make it count.
“It’s heartbreaking,” manager Eric Hallberg said. “You get out there and play one game, get back to the hotel and someone tests positive, and then you get the news that you’ve got to go home. We have four returning players from last year, and we’ve got a great group from top to bottom. One of the best groups I’ve ever taken out there, and this is my third trip.”
Jack Dodds, Harrison Hallberg, Marcus Kendrick II and Taj Prater, the four remaining from last year’s squad, once again helped the team get back to Waco and will get the tournament experience they were denied last year. The excitement and the hype of the occasion before the games even begin can be a bit of a distraction, and their leadership seems to have been a positive factor in preparing the rest of the team.
“I think the guys that were part of the team last year, just going through the experience of coming out to Waco and going through the motions obviously has been a help for the kids that are first timers this year,” Schilling said. “They’ve been able to tell them what to expect and what to look forward to, and they’ve been guys we can rely on in terms of expectations for what’s going to go one for the next few days.”
The experience of missing out last year wasn’t just on the minds of the returning players and coaches. It gave perspective to everyone, and no one was going to risk missing out this time.
“This year everybody that played was committed to going,” Hallberg said. “Waco is a 10-hour road trip so sometimes you’ve got to leave some players behind because they aren’t committed to going. This year, everyone was committed, and we’re bringing all our best players without leaving anyone behind.”
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