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Roads to championships are being paved now

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By John Herndon

It was six years ago this week that the Anderson County 9- and 10-year-old all-stars began their run that finally ended in the state tournament semi-finals at Winchester.

That team finished as runner-up in the district, then won a couple of games at the state before the team from Greenup County eliminated it.

Six years. It was Anderson County's first season of competing in Little League after a long hiatus. It remains the longest run by any Anderson County Little League all-star team since the county re-connected with the world's largest youth sports organization.

And, it is no coincidence that three players penciled into the starting lineup when Anderson County took the field in the state high school baseball tournament last month were members of that Little League team. Another member of that Little League team was a key reserve on this year's Bearcats.

In fact, when Anderson was finally eliminated by Pleasure Ridge Park four weeks ago Thursday, all but one of the Bearcat starters had been members of an Anderson County Little League all-star team. The one moved to Anderson County during his middle school years.

And in a twist of irony, one member of the Anderson County fast-pitch softball team, which finished tied for fifth at the high school state tournament, featured one girl who had been a Little League All-Star in 2002.

It would be a bit simplistic to credit all of Anderson's diamond success to the Little League. After all, some nearby communities are affiliated with the Babe Ruth organization, known as Cal Ripken baseball at the same ages as Little League. Plus, the Anderson County youth softball leagues are affiliated with the National Softball Association, instead of playing in that division of Little League.

However, it would also be foolish to discount the roles the youth leagues played in this year's successes.

"I think what we saw were the fruits of a well-organized youth program," says Greg McCall, an assistant coach on the high school baseball team and a youth coach when the local league became affiliated with Little League six years ago.

"It's hard to say how much of a role it plays," McCall continued, "but it is a part of it."

There are many variables that would make it impossible to predict future success, however. Between Little League and high school, some kids decide to focus on other sports, some move away and some might decide to abandon the athletic fields for various reasons when they get to high school.

In recent years, traveling teams have played increasingly major developmental roles. Anderson County is represented by baseball's Central Kentucky Mudcats and softball's Central Kentucky Bat Cats.

But, unlike Little League, travel teams have few, if any, restrictions on where a player resides. While the Bat Cats, for example, own a heavy Anderson County influence, the organization draws players from all over central Kentucky. Several Anderson County baseball and softball players are on teams based in Frankfort, Versailles and Lexington, as well.

I might interject that the nature of travel teams has made what the Mudcats' baseball team has done even more remarkable. While the organization could get players from anywhere, it has been exclusively for Anderson County kids. Even with that "disadvantage," the Mudcats have been largely successful.

Most of all, the travel teams give repetitions in sports that, because of the school calendar, are among the most difficult for a high school program to develop.

"During summer ball we usually play anywhere from eight to 10 tournaments. This would average somewhere between 32 - 40 games each summer. The experience these girls gain form playing 30-plus additional games per year is irreplaceable," says Dana Hudson, the head of the Batcats organization and an assistant softball coach at Anderson County High.

"Another advantage is that the age groups are broken down into a smaller category. Where in high school ball we have all ages together, in summer ball you have two age divisions for one team. This give each girl more of an opportunity to have playing time and develop more skills.

"With an organized program like the Batcats, starting girls at an early age with the correct fundamentals is the biggest step a high school program can take. Brian (Glass, the Anderson head coach) and I hand pick our coaches and work with each team and coach to ensure the fundamentals are being taught the same as the high school program."

The same holds true in baseball. "The Mudcats has helped Anderson County baseball tremendously," says Rob Ginter, who coaches the 14-and-under Mudcats and is a Bearcat baseball assistant coach. "During summer ball, the weather is less of a factor and we have smaller numbers so our players get more attention and opportunity. Eight out of our nine (Anderson) starters played for the Mudcats for at least one year, many of them have played for multiple years. They tend to make some big strides during the summer and they get a lot closer with their teammates."

It should be noted that Ginter, Hudson or any other high school coaches, are prohibited from working with high school players during the "dead period," which began June 25 and will run through July 9.

Coaches not affiliated with high school teams can give instruction during that time, although some teams take those 15 days off.

Hudson says one can't put a price tag on what the travel teams mean. "When I first came to Anderson County five years ago we would use the first two weeks of practice just teaching the girls the correct way to throw a softball. This takes away from teaching other important aspects of the game. This year we had very few players that needed instruction on throwing. Those that did need instruction on throwing were not members of the Batcat organization."

High rankings and state tournament trips visited Anderson County baseball and softball this spring, but with other programs also working in the off season, there is no guarantee such highs won't happen again soon.

What is certain, though, is that the road to championships start in the youth leagues and goes through the summer developmental programs.