Federal Little League 2008 All-Stars: A Coach's Perspective

Federal Little League 2008 All-Stars
A Coach's Perspective
by Coach Doug Hornbecker

Now that we have completed our 2008 All-Star tournament run, I can begin to reflect back on our team's journey.
We began All-Star practice on June 16, nothing special, just a practice to assess the players, their skills, etc. that we had to work with. We had five players that had played on our All-Star team the previous year and had won our district tournament, the first in Federal Little Leagues 50 plus year existence. The experience these players would bring to this new team was very valuable.
These players had dealt with the pressure that All-Star tournament bring, and this experience brought some confidence to the new players. Andrew Yacyk was the team's leader, there was never any doubt about it, he exudes leadership, on and off the field. He picked players up after a bad at bat, or an error in the field, and he, by his actions alone, pushes the other players to perform at a higher level. All-Star practice continued, every day, sometimes to our parents' dismay. We scheduled practice every day because we figured we'd get rained out at some point - this did not happen - we practiced right up to our first game, July 7 at Valley Little League. The District tournament had begun.
We felt going into the District tournament that we had a good team, not a great team at that time, but we felt we could be competitive. I knew our first five batters were as good as any leagues, but feelings and performances are two different things. I thought our pitching was a little on the short side, with no All-Star game experience, and really only two regular league starters, pitching was a major concern. We enlisted the help of Mike Brashears, a local talent, and great pitching coach, to help work with all our pitchers - a very wise decision. The most important part of any team, but especially an All-Star team where you're mixing the best players off of six teams is can they play together? Will there be team chemistry? This team had it from the start, they never complained about where and when they played or when or how often they batted. They put the team first, and as any coach will tell you, more so than individual talent, team chemistry is the most important factor for a team to be successful.
The District tournament began and almost immediately we saw how powerful this lineup was. Their "good" hitting was contagious. Everyone got into the act. What a powerful thing it is when you have twelve players on the same page. Confidence grew with each win, and the players continued to push each other. Our pitching was working out, largely because our offense was putting many runs on the board, and our defense performed well.
As I reflect back on the 2008 All-Star season a couple of things stand out. I was fortunate to coach the 2007 District 1 championship team, so naturally the team comparisons started. In the beginning, I did not think we were as good as the 2007 team. I thought the 2008 team was good, but not quite as talented, at least on paper. Our pitching wasn't as deep, and I don't think the offense or defense was as strong. It didn't take long to see I wasn't giving the new team its due.
We practiced, practiced, practiced.
When District tournaments started, our team was tested. Again, the comparison to last year's lineup was inevitable, and we got our answer the very first game. This team was strong. We took on teams that may have been better on paper, but they did not play for the team - ours did. We respected every team we played, while trying to win each inning. I haven't looked back to see how many innings we didn't win. Winning the District title was or mini goal, after all we had only one district flag in our league's history, the second one was just as nice! We celebrated the District championship big time! A second flag and sign will now hang at Federal Little League. We were all proud of this accomplishment. The ice water baths never get old.
The memories I take from Easton are great ones. We are very fortunate at Federal to have families and fans that supported us throughout our journey. It makes for a great experience. Traveling with the parents and with the 12- and 13-year-old players was a special time. We practiced together, ate together, and practiced together. The facilities and hosts at Easton were excellent. To our surprise the State tournament games were announced over the Internet so people back home could listen to the games live. This helped build a fan support - it as a first for us. The sea of red Federal shirts in the stands and lining the fences at the games made us look like the home team. Most will never know the positive influence they had on the team.
We knew this was a fluke. The kids, to their credit, knew this as well.
This was probably the toughest and most rewarding win we had to date. We fell behind and were able to rally to win; this was a huge win for us - we lose this one and we likely wouldn't win the State tournament - our journey would be over. We did start to think maybe this thing, our journey, was meant to be. One of the best memories I will take from this game was putting Adam Blenckstone in the game with no outs and bases loaded. Adam didn't pitch during the regular season, and here we stood on the mound, in a critical time in the game, and he came through for his team. This was how our team rolled, many times our reserve players came through for us - getting the key hit, or a walk to win games. Everyone on the team contributed; it really was a team effort.
The Easton team was a good one, they were deep with pitching, and had a potent offense. Naturally they were the home team. Our bats were hot! We won with solid pitching and homerun after homerun. This was out league's first State tournament win (another banner to hang). I am filled with the accomplishment and pride. Our fans played a big roll in our teams win... I remember the ride home with Coach Abeles. We looked at each other and said, "What the heck are we doing here?" Again we thought we had a good team, but we had exceeded our expectations and were very proud of our team. The parents and fans were elated, and now we were headed to Bristol, CT.
I had never visited Bristol before. I watched the Regional games on television, but never had any reason to visit. Things began to change here. We were staying in a complex that housed the team and us coaches. There was security, schedules, and meetings with the Bristol staff. You could tell you had accomplished something. Sixteen teams, eight in the Mid-Atlantic, played in pool play until there were four, then there were the semi-final games and a championship game. They told us we were champions when we first arrived - representing the state of Maryland was something special. Justice Jobe, catcher Dalton Jobe's dad, bought new uniforms for all and what a great feeling it was to take the field in Bristol. We were all proud. We were then told that some of our games would be televised. When we met with Carl Ravage and Orestos Estrada and visited the ESPN headquarters, we knew this was something special.
The people in Bristol were incredible. The players and coaches were treated like kings. I remember sitting in the cafeteria and seeing all the past Regional champion flags. It was very impressive. I wondered, 'Can we do this?' How could would it be to have another Maryland flag with Hagerstown and Federal Little League hanging up there. West Salisbury Little League flag was up there from 2007.
Play started and our momentum continued. We played a game against New Jersey that we did not have to win, we through our staff pitching, a true team effort because a couple of these players did not expect to be pitching in a Regional tournament. We were down 6-0 coming into the bottom of the 5th inning and we won the game in the bottom of the 6th. This game just added to our belief that maybe we do have something special here.
We beat a real good Pennsylvania team in the final game and the Regional title was ours. The Federal crowds were large and loud. They were going nuts. We realized that we had just won the Regional tournament and that meant a trip to Williamsport, PA to compete in the Little League World Series. That night right after the championship game we were sitting in the cafeteria signing two-dozen baseballs. It was almost overwhelming to realize that our team would indeed have a flag hanging there. What an accomplishment.
They had a parents' meeting right after the game. Their rooms were booked, and we were told we would have a tour bus waiting for us in the morning to take us to Williamsport.
Williamsport, Pennsylvania...Dare to Dream.
I have been to Williamsport with both of my sons last year. I have always wondered what was on the other side of the fence that separates the fans from the players and coaches and would loved to have played or even walked onto Lamade Field. Now I was going to find out. It was incredible to be on the inside - to realize that your team was in Williamsport to play in the Yankee Stadium of Little League baseball. It took a couple of days to take it all in. You may dream about it, but it's so far out there - the Little League World Series. Can it ever happen? I had no idea it could, but when you play as a team, and you have athletes who work together who believe in each other - good things can happen.
The teams we could face in Williamsport come from much larger communities than ours, therefore drawing from much larger player pools. The teams we were to face were playing baseball together for 8-10 months out of the year. How could a team from Hagerstown, Maryland compete against these teams? Our kids have heart, and the number of their fan base is soooo moving. The players fed off their fans and ended up winning two of three games. Our 12- and 13-year-olds, and this coach, played their game on the biggest field in Little League.
Thanks to the parents, and fans of Team Federal, Team Maryland, and the Mid-Atlantic Team for making this an incredible journey and a once in a lifetime memory for all of us.