By TREY WILLIAMS
A year after winning an unexpected berth in the Little League World Series, Daniel Boone’s softball team came painfully close to making it back.
Boone won the 11-12-year-old state tournament in Charlotte, a fifth straight such title for the core group of girls, and advanced to the winners bracket final of the Southeast Region in Warner Robins, Georgia. The repeat run was derailed July 28 thanks, in part, to an extra-inning bloop hit in a 5-4 loss to North Carolina.
When the dust had settled, however, players and coaches alike were proud of the accomplishments and nearly completing an unlikely repeat trip to Portland, Oregon.
“It’s kind of unreal to believe actually, but these girls just set a goal in their minds and they were destined to achieve it,” manager Lori Jenkins said. “Last year, I think, we played out of our socks. It was unreal that we won the Southeast Region and our goal was just to get back (to the regional) again. And we almost had it if we could’ve won that North Carolina game. And we knew whoever won it was going on again to the World Series.”
Boone was propelled by the bats of Riley Croley, Josie Jenkins and Ava Saul at the state tournament. They were essentially on a four-game tear. Each batted over .500 during state tourney play.
“Those three just hit phenomenal down there,” Jenkins said. “They kind of carried us hitting wise.”
Croley batted ninth last year. These days, she’s in the leadoff spot.
“I’d have to say she’s made big strides in her batting and on-base percentage, because at the Southeast Region she ended up batting .545,” Sanders said. “She’s really improved her hitting game. She did a great job.”
Catcher Kyleigh Bacon and Jenkins, the shortstop, anchor the defense.
“Kyleigh Bacon can also pitch, but she’s just so good behind the plate that you just hate to remove her from there,” Jenkins said. “I mean nobody steals on her. She throws everybody out just about. I don’t think anybody stole on here the whole state tournament. I think we allowed one steal in the Southeast Regional just because it was a bobbled pitch trying to catch a changeup.
“(Jenkins) is kind of like the Golden Glove over there. That’s what I call her. She prides herself on defense. She’s kind of one of the main captains on the infield, too. …
“Third baseman Ava Saul is another one of the team leaders. She’s a good defensive person for us.”
Bacon was hot at the plate in Georgia.
“She stepped up really big at the Southeast Region and had phenomenal at-bats,” Jenkins said. “She was batting around .600 at the Southeast Region.”
The pitching ace is Kayleigh Musser. That’s been the case for years. Katie Sparks recently joined the team, and platooned with Musser in the state tournament.
Starters include left fielder Sadie Henson, center fielder Lillie Walters, first baseman Anna Richardson and right fielder Taylor Brinn. Also among the contributors are Matti Phillips, Kenzie Bacon and Addison Dietz.
Boone’s Little League program initially began primarily to nourish the Daniel Boone High School program. But it’s become an entity of its own.
“We just wanted to try to make a team to help out our high school program,” Jenkins said. “It’s mainly why it started. We’ve got some great parents. I can’t think of one time that any parent has ever complained – knock on wood.”
Boone was arguably within a bloop single of a second straight Little League World Series berth. Jenkins won’t soon digest the loss, even if her young players understandably do.
“We tied it up in the sixth inning, 4-4, and had to go in extra innings,” Jenkins said. “They ended up beating us 5-4 in extra innings on – it almost makes me sick – a little blooper. It’s just painful to think about.
“You’ve got 13 girls sitting there staring at ya just bawling. And then we took ‘em to Steak ‘n Shake and they were laughing, cutting up, having a good ole time. And on the trip back home they were wild as bucks. And I’m still ready to chew nails thinking, ‘Man, if I’d just done something different.’”
Jenkins primarily works with the pitchers. Freddie Saul coaches the hitters and Steven Croley assists with fielding instruction.
“All three of us just kind of started when eight of these girls were seven years old,” Jenkins said. “We started down there at Little League and picked a core group of girls that were all the same age and we knew that we could keep together. And we’ve just been working with ‘em ever since.
“It just kind of took off. I never really dreamed it would end up what it’s ended up in Little League.”