READY TO PLAY

Billings players focused on another Little League World Series win

2011-08-20T16:00:00Z 2011-08-21T13:20:11Z Billings players focused on another Little League World Series winBy SUSAN OLP Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 20, 2011 4:00 pm  • 

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Baseball is a game, but when the Big Sky All-Stars go out to practice, they're ready to work.

With Sunday's noon game with Lafayette, La., on their minds, the 12 players spent two hours Saturday morning on a practice field away from the hustle and bustle of Lamade Stadium, where they won their first Little League World Series game Thursday.

Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, baseball caps and tennis shoes, they went through the routine they've followed since late June.

Running and stretching were followed by a few sprints. Then, in pairs, they practiced tossing a baseball back and forth, first on their knees and then on their feet.

They stepped back a few paces and continued the drill. Then they moved to the baseball diamond where they practiced catching the ball.

Manager Gene Carlson and the other two coaches, Mark Kieckbusch and Tom Zimmer, hit balls to players and worked with infielders and outfielders to perfect their technique. The coaches also gave guidance and called out encouragement and correction, when necessary, to help the boys work smoothly as a unit.

Next was batting practice, where the players hit bunts and long balls. They did it over and over and over again, so that when they hit the field on Sunday, they will be ready.

The players weren't done when they left the practice field. They and the coaches went to the batting cages for an hour of batting and pitching.

There were no complaints, no whining. The players know what it takes to win.

It's not all work, though. The boys get to play ping-pong and air hockey with team members from other states and other countries.

They spend time relaxing with their families. And they get to just rest. That's important, Carlson said Saturday morning.

"We let them sleep in today because we figured that they needed to get caught up on their rest," he said, before the start of practice.

The plan for the rest of Saturday was to relax and spend time with their families. A team dinner was on the schedule for the players, the coaches and the families.

On Sunday, the boys will get up and go eat breakfast, relax for a while and then go back to the batting cages.

"We'll go right from the cages to the game," he said.

They will play the Southwest regional champs from Lafayette, La. Both teams won their first games, with the Big Sky All-Stars defeating the Harney All-Stars from Rapid City, S.D., on Thursday, 6-4.

Carlson said he had not yet decided who would take the mound for Big Sky on Sunday.

Cole McKenzie, who threw 66 pitches in Thursday's game, must wait four days to pitch again under Little League rules. Sean Jones, who threw fewer than 20 pitches in the first game, could go again.

All of the players will take part in the game, Carlson said. Little League's minimum-play rule requires each player have at least one at-bat and six defensive outs in a game.

Asked how the boys are doing, Carlson said their mood is upbeat.

"They're relaxed," he said. "They're just enjoying the moment. They're having fun."

Meanwhile, the families of the Big Sky players are spending their time in a variety of ways, said Jody Sulser, mother of right fielder Gabe Sulser.

Because of the quick turnaround between San Bernardino, Calif., and South Williamsport, many of the families had to scramble to get flights back East. That meant taking red-eye flights or a long day's travel to get to Pennsylvania. The Big Sky All-Stars won the Northwest Region Little League championship in San Bernardino to make it to the Little League World Series.

So they've taken some time to get rested since Thursday's game. When they've had the opportunity, they've watched some baseball with their sons and enjoyed dinner out together.

They've done some sight-seeing, and, of course, they cheered on their sons to their first World Series victory.

The boys stay in the dorms with their coaches, so the families have access to their sons only part of the time. At first, Sulser said that was a little hard.

But she's come to see the sense of it.

"When you see over time how focused they stay when they're together, how they rely on each other and not on us, it's probably a good thing," Sulser said. "I think it helps keep the distractions away."

The families were looking forward to Saturday's team dinner, she said. They planned to celebrate a couple of birthdays and just enjoy some time together.

"It could be one of the last whole-team dinners," she said.

 

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