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BASEBALL: Little things, big difference

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Local summer baseball program integral part of high school success

By John Herndon

It's all about the little things with the Central Kentucky Mudcats.

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Making the right decisions in the field. Putting the bat on the baseball. Getting bunts down. Running the bases. Throwing strikes.

And it's learning how to put socks on and knowing smells.

That's what the Mudcats organization is all about

Started in 2001 as a summer baseball extension of the Anderson County High School program, the Mudcats are still around, playing teams from other communities in Kentucky and surrounding states. And, according to Mudcat coach Chris Copenhaver, who doubles as an assistant coach at the high school, it is a major reason why an argument can be made that Anderson County has been the most successful baseball program in the Eighth Region since 2000.

Anderson has won four regional championships, second only to Shelby County's five. Anderson also had three regional runner-up finishes and, until this spring, had not been eliminated during district tournament play since 1998. It was the longest run of any Eighth Region program.

That is quite a run for a program that did not record a single regional tournament win from 1984-98.

Back in 2001, Copenhaver and Anderson head coach L.W. Barnes switched roles in the summer, taking a 15-and-under team into the summertime wars. Before that, any Anderson County kid who wanted to play summer baseball at a high level had to go to Frankfort, Lexington or Louisville.

Just two years later, that same group won the school's second regional championship.

This year, the Mudcats are competing as a 16-and-under team, although Copenhaver says most of his players are 14 or 15. They remain independent so there is flexibility in scheduling.

Recently, the team competed in an 18-and-under tournament at Lindsey Wilson College and has played some 18-and-under teams on the schedule. The big difference for the Mudcats, however, is that the team is strictly Anderson County kids. It's a rarity in summer ball, where teams are often made up of players representing several different high school teams.

“Rarely do you find a summer team that does what we do,” Copenhaver says. “A lot of teams bring in players to win a lot of ball games. We want this to be a development team for the high school program.”

The formula is simple: Start with a group when it is young and stay together until it graduates. “Ideally, we would have two teams,” Copenhaver says, “but we don't have enough coaches.”

The Mudcats usually have 12 players. to have two teams representing different age groups would require six coaches. Currently, Copenhaver is assisted by former Anderson County players Jeremy Turpin, Nick Satterly and Tim Hamilton. Home games are played at Barnes Memorial Field at the high school.

While the team is independent, it plays under United States Specialty Sports Association baseball rules.

Currently, the current Mudcats are making huge strides this summer.

“I have been more pleased this summer than the last two,” Copenhaver says. “These kids are beginning to understand what it takes to be successful.”

He goes back to the little things, like respecting the game in an old school manner.

This year, the Mudcats have a bit of a throwback look, wearing stirrup-sock that had almost become a thing of the past. It's just a reminder that baseball is a special game steeped in tradition and certain ways of doing things.

“They are coming back in style so we are just getting ahead of the curve and I think they are more baseball oriented than the socks,” Copenhaver says of the fashion statement. “I like how they look and it reminds me of the old uniforms baseball players used to wear.”

But most importantly, the Mudcats stress little things on the diamond. In a loss to West Jessamine – a team that Copenhaver said was actually comprised of players from more than one school – the Mudcat pitching staff suddenly could not throw strikes.

“You have to be able to get the fastball over for a strike. It's that simple,” he says. “We did OK until two outs in the third inning, then we couldn't throw strikes.

“Baseball is a game of humility. Even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times, but you have to pick yourself up and keep on swinging.”

And, Copenhaver says, this group of Mudcats, many of whom were members of the Anderson team that lost to Collins in the district tournament, learned a hard lesson.

The Bearcats lost in extra innings but had several opportunities to shock the eventual regional champion. Little things prevented the upset. Anderson went home after one game for the first time since 1998.

“That (loss) helps you because you can use it as motivation,” Copenhaver smiled. “

It could be simply a bump in the road.

The current Mudcats – who had been eighth-graders, freshmen and sophomores this year – are “extremely talented,” according to Copenhaver. The incoming freshman class won the Little League district as 11-year-olds and another group, which will be at Anderson County Middle School this year, won the Little League 12-year-old district title last year.

“They have very high potential and expectations,” Copenhaver said.

But baseball, with all its nuances, is about simply knowing how to play the game.

Copenhaver grins when he thinks about a speech he gave several years ago. Turpin, who was playing for the Mudcats at the time and has just finished his college baseball career, repeated it to the current team recently.

“Jeremy told them, 'You will know you know how to play the game when you know what baseball smells like,'” Copenhaver said.

Which is?

“The grass. The dirt. The leather of your glove. The leather of the ball. It's a night game when the lights are on and you smell the air. There is nothing like it.”