The first tournament of the fall baseball season was completed on Sunday for the Junction City Blues Baseball Club 12U’s with the team sweeping the competition to earn their first title as a club.
“It feels real good — I was impressed,” coach Nathan Boeckman said. “I did not anticipate us playing that well, because we went from practicing, you know all summer twice a week to scaling it back to barely once a week. And the practices weren't two hours like they normally are because of the sun setting quicker, football going on, soccer going on — but the kids ... it's like they never took a break off.”
While the club is new this season with the addition of the new club after the summer season wrapped up, the team and players have mostly been together for some time, Boeckman said.
“Short of a couple players, the rest have been playing together more than a few years,” he said. “Three of them been playing together since 7U.”
Boeckman knew the competition was going to be stiff, but once seeing the final days bracket pairings, he knew there was a solid chance of success with Manhattan Next Level seeded on the opposite side.
“When I noticed that they were on the one side of the bracket, and we're on the other side the bracket, in my opinion, I kind of thought we were the two strongest teams and I thought there was a good chance that we could meet in the championship — and we sure did,” he said.
After finishing Saturday’s pool play perfect, 2-0, the Blue earned the third seeding behind Missouri’s 643KC Blue 12 and the Shawnee Diamond Dogs to the point differential.
Junction City started the bracket against the Lee’s Summit Crushers 12U and rallied behind the 12-1 victory to gain early momentum on the day.
A pitching duel against the Lawrence Angels in the semifinals ended with the Blues up 3-2 advancing to the championship match against Next Level.
Mu’aadh “MooMoo” Harris got the start for the Blues and allowed one run in the first inning on two hits before bookending the inning with strikeouts.
In the bottom of the innings, the momentum from the short first-half and the day crescendoed with three runners crossing the plate on three hits and a Manhattan error.
Harris used that lead to relax on the mound and trusted the seven players behind him to keep the lead defensively and offensively when they gathered to bat.
“MooMoo can definitely throw strikes and sometimes throwing a lot of strikes you're gonna get hit,” Boeckman said. “I mean, we play a lot of good teams but, MooMoo has a defense behind him and that's, in my opinion, one of our strongest points — our defense. And some of those defenders, particularly the right fielder Jayden (Valentine), had like at least two good catches. Like hard catches where they're a highlight type of catch, and that saved us.”
Offensively, the Blues took advantage of gaps in coverage to drop hits into key locations rattling the Manhattan pitcher in the process.
“Really what separated us was, they weren't getting too many hits in the gaps and we were,” Boeckman said. “And the hits in the gaps were just at the right time and we just kept getting one hit and advancing bases, another hit advancing bases and it is basically just your typical small ball. Next Level, they're known. They're known for their pitching. I mean that's what they're known for. They got a lot of good pitchers.”
The hitting and defensive combination stretched the early 3-1 lead to 4-1 and eventually 6-1 after four shutout innings on defense.
Manhattan scored two final runs in the top of the sixth, but were unable to capture the lead to force the bottom-half to be played.
With the victory came the spoils, Boeckman said.
“We actually got the best championship packet I've ever seen, to be honest,” he said. “They gave every kid a medal, they gave a team plaque and team banner. They gave every kid a nice hat. They gave every kid a T-shirt.
“And I found out today, not only that we get all that — we have to respond to an email about all the sizes that the boys wear because we're getting all matching team baseball batting gloves,” he added. “And not only is that not the only thing, they are also giving us a free entry into another tournament. Right now we're looking at maybe trying to enter the Monster Bash Oct. 2-4. And it's one of the biggest tournaments in the state of Kansas besides the Hawaiian Hit Fest and besides the state championship game. so currently there's 319 teams that have signed up.”
The team will practice between football and soccer matches the players are also involved in to prepare for the tournament that will feature 17 other teams who are currently signed up with the possibility of facing more teams who sign up later.
The Blues were originally signed up for AA games, but with the weekend win and the previous seasons state championship title associated with them, they have been moved up to the AAA brackets against bigger teams with deeper bullpens.
Boeckman acknowledged the team will have to “step it up” in the tournament as they face teams with that have more skilled position players on their rosters.