Lower Sussex did it again and repeated to win the District III Junior League All-Star championship for the second straight year by defeating Laurel 9-4 on July 17.
Head Coach Craig Conover’s squad of already grizzled veterans smashed the competition thus far in postseason play and appear to be on the fast track for another regional championship and possible a state championship.
Lower Sussex outscored their opponents 56-5 in their four district appearances this postseason — defeating Millsboro 8-0, Cape Henlopen 26-0 and Laurel twice (first 15-1 and again in the championship 9-4).
Having defeated Laurel twice last season in the final at-bats — there would be no need for last-second heroics this year.
Lower Sussex pounded Laurel 15-1 to enact the mercy rule prior to the championship, putting them closer to their goals.
After jumping out to a quick 4-0 lead in the top of the first inning, Lower Sussex added another six runs in the second inning to put them virtually out of reach for the entire game.
Third-baseman Cameron Travalini began the second inning with a lead-off single, (scored on a past pitch to Cory Showalter) which was followed by a walk by second-baseman Chris Conover.
Shortstop Luis Barrientos singled to left field to load the bases with no outs when starting pitcher Showalter laced a two-RBI single to the outfield — scoring Conover and Barrientos and extending Lower Sussex’s lead to 7-0.
The hits kept coming, and catcher Bo Wilkinson walked to keep the bases warm. First-baseman Cody Cooke scored Showalter on a RBI single, and a balk to outfielder Jake Buchler scored pinch runner Tyree Oliver. Buchler would deliver with a RBI single of his own to score Cooke but would earn his team’s first out of the inning trying to stretch the play into a double.
Up 10-0 and facing Laurel’s soft-tossing Ike Lewis, victory was almost at hand. Lewis came into the game midway through the second inning and but only gave up three more runs in as many innings of work.
In the top of the fifth, Conover scored Elijah Foreman, who drew a leadoff walk after Travalini moved Foreman on a fielder’s choice. Showalter would again deliver another blow — driving in Conover on a 1-2 pitcher’s-count RBI double.
Wilkinson jumped on the first good pitch thrown his way (which was actually the second pitch thrown to him — the first was a ball) to score Barrientos, who reached base on an error by the left fielder to extend Lower Sussex’s lead to 13-1.
Lower Sussex’s final two runs were scored when Showalter scored on a past pitch to Wilkinson and Foreman was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to force in the run — widening the lead to 15-1.
Showalter pitched five innings in the mercy-rule game against Laurel while giving up only one run on a solo homerun to Jake Dubinski, who had homer’ed in three straight games.
Laurel only had four base-runners the entire game, but in the bottom of the fifth inning they had their best chance to ruin the mercy rule and force extra innings.
With two outs and the bases loaded, Showalter worked a full count to get his only strikeout to seal the victory.
He walked three batters and allowed one single and a homerun, but his teammates made sure to back him up — snagging four fly pops and nine ground balls, one of which was turned for the 5-4-3 double play in the bottom of the third to end the inning.
Laurel would get a chance to redeem themselves, and that chance would come in the District III championship on July 17.
Barrientos got the nod for Lower Sussex on the pitcher’s mound and didn’t disappoint. He earned the win while working six innings and striking out nine of 29 batters and only gave up two runs on five hits and four walks.
Lower Sussex capitalized on timely hitting and patient at-bats by their sluggers.
After a RBI fielder’s choice by Buchler to score Cooke (2-2, double, run), Travalini slapped in Matt McDowell with a RBI single and Conover drew a walk to set up Lower Sussex with a golden scoring opportunity as Barrientos came to the plate.
Barrientos went 1-4 in the championship game against Laurel but his three-run homerun — his second of the tournament, to score Travalini and Conover — would give them enough breathing room to withstand any comeback attempts.
Foreman would add three more RBIs on 1-1 hitting and delivering on a bases-loaded walk and a sac fly.
Laurel’s Josh Kosiorski blasted a two-run homerun off Travalini for two of three runs, giving up in relief in the top of the seventh to make things interesting. But that would – in the end — not be enough to topple the two-time District III champions.
“We got it started by hitting the ball and were able to score six or seven runs in the top of the second inning with two outs,” said Conover. “Once we got some runners on base we were able to get some runs.”
“Kind of anti-climatic game when you look at our history,” continued Conover.
Conover credited his teams’ success to his players’ mature attitudes and his dedicated coaching staff.
“Three or four of our guys have won the championship before but six or eight haven’t. But none of them were rolling around on the ground celebrating,” said Conover. “They know that our goal is to get back to the regionals and do better there, and hopefully win states.”
“We’re different from so many other Little League teams because we have so many good ballplayers,” said Conover.
It is essential to have good talent to win but good coaching ignites the engine that drives winning teams.
“Our under-10 coaches, Doug Hudson and Rich Donaldson, have helped the kids improve so much with pitching and hitting techniques they’ve picked up,” said Conover.
“Our pitching has been our strength but Doug has helped our guys draw a straight line to the mind and know where they are on the mound and other techniques. Rich has helped these kids learn not to lunge, which Little Leaguers have a bad habit of doing,” said Conover. “You have to sit back and drive the ball instead of leaning on that front foot and Rich has the kids working on drills to correct that.”
Conover and his Lower Sussex Junior League squad will have their chance to show how much they’ve improved when they travel to New Castle Little League on July 29 as challengers for the regional championship — the next step towards a state championship.
first two games will play at 2 p.m., and the championship game will take place at 4 p.m.