SKELL all-stars eye state tourney

Trying to get the best of the best to mesh isn’t always the easiest thing to do. And no one knows that better than veteran Little League coach Ralph Riddle.

So when Riddle was handed the keys to this year’s 11- to 12-year-old South Kitsap Eastern Little League All-Star team, he knew he’d need some help getting the group to play as a team. And he got it — from the kids themselves.

“At first it was hard, but we all came together and played as a team,” 12-year-old pitcher/shortstop Kasey Bielec said. “We just try to stay focused, play hard and win games.”

And win they have. This group, which Riddle calls the best he’s every coached, proved its mettle last week in winning the Washington State District 2 Major League Tournament, defeating the Gig Harbor National team 6-2 in the final.

The next step is the Washington State Tournament beginning in Auburn today. SKELL faces Richland, from District 12, at 4 p.m. at Sunset Park in Auburn. The double-elimination event continues through July 31.

The winner of that tourney then heads to the regional tournament in San Bernardino, Calif. from Aug. 4 to 15 with a berth in the Aug. 19-28 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Va., on the line.

Not bad for a team that first got together on June 16 and has been practicing or playing just about every day since.

The team of 12 is made up of six players picked by their peers, four chosen by a committee of SKELL managers and the final two picked by Riddle.

“You’d think that the kids might not pick the right ones, but they did,” Riddle said. “They know who’s good and they know who can play, and we definitely have the 12 best players in SKELL here on this team.”

Forming an all-star team has it problems, Riddle said. The toughest thing about this age group is all of these kids are pitchers, catchers and shortstops, meaning some end up playing a position they may not be all that familiar with.

Another problem is that all 12 were stars on their regular teams and are used to playing the entire game in the field, not sitting the bench.

“The biggest thing we stress on this team in the coming together as a team is camaraderie,” Riddle said. “All-Star teams fail when they rely on individual talent. They have to come together as a team and play as a team. So we do everything as a team. And this team has done that in spades.”

In fact, it’s been pretty easy for some.

“We all get along so well,” 12 year-old catcher/outfielder David Cole said. “And we never give up.”

Cole, who played for O’Riley’s Auto Body during the regular season, said a couple of close games last week — especially a come-from-behind win over Bainbridge Island — have given this team a lot of confidence.

And that’s a good thing for Riddle, who has been coaching in the SKELL for 12 years. The last eight of those were at the major league level and this is his third year as the manager of the all-star team. And he’s hit the jackpot talent-wise.

“This is the best collection of kids I’ve ever seen out of this division,” Riddle said. “Without a doubt.”

That’s a big-time statement, but these guys have the numbers to back it up.

As a team, this group is batting a whopping .420 with a .630 slugging percentage, including 11 extra base hits in their five games.

But it’s not just a collection of good bats. The team’s pitching staff carries an earned run average of 2.14 with 26 strike outs in 28 innings. Even more impressive is the three walks allowed over those 28 innings and the four team errors.

In last week’s district tournament, pitchers Bielec and Brennen Fernie combined to throw 18 innings over three games and walked just one batter.

“I don’t care what level you’re at, Little League, high school, Mariners, if you walk one batter in three games, you win, period,” Riddle said. “That’s just the way it is. It’s that simple. Our pitching has been outstanding and the defense has been superb.”

And the defense has been just as good with the likes of David Cole at catcher or Chris Bamonte at shortstop or Austin Lowe in the outfield.

Of course, being kids, they deal with the pressure of the game during the game and then instantly start to think about other things once it is over. So that puts most of the pressure on Riddle and his coaching staff.

“We don’t get a lot of sleep – we worry about it a lot,” Riddle said. “I’m constantly asking myself if I’ve prepared these kids, have we worked on everything, have we covered everything. And they just go out and play and have fun.”

But this team has plenty to keep it focused. First of all, Richland has sent teams to the LLWS and Riddle is expecting to see a very good team today. And second, SKELL has never had a state champion in any of its age groups or divisions.

“It doesn’t worry me too much because I know we’re a very good team and they probably are too, so we’ll just come out and play hard,” Bielec said.

Even Riddle thinks something special can come out of this group.

“We want to be the first,” he said. “And this team can absolutely do it. Absolutely.”

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