Northern Little League coach Randy Morris has preached a one-game-at-a-time approach to his players for weeks. But with the district and state titles wrapped up, his players finally are drawing their motivation from the thought of a trip to the Little League World Series.
“I think the kids realize that we’ve completed the first stage at districts and stage two at state, and now we’re focused on stage three at the region level,” Morris said. “But they know how close stage four is, too, and they want to do anything they can to get there.”
After three years without a state championship, and with it a regional berth, Morris and Northern are back at this week’s Southeast Regional tournament. They begin pool play at 1 p.m. today against South Carolina in Warner Robins, Ga.
Morris, who coached the 2006 Northern team to a World Series championship, said this season’s Northern team has the depth needed to contend for a trip to Williamsport, Pa., the site of the World Series.
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“I think this is as good a team as I’ve coached,” Morris said. “We have all 12 kids contributing. Even the kids who don’t start, they play just as well and could be starters on most other teams.”
The key to Northern’s return, Morris said, has been pitching. And the team’s depth at that position, especially with Little League rules limiting 11- and 12-year-old players to a maximum of 85 pitchers per appearance and dictating as many as four days of rest, has been crucial in reaching the regional.
“The key is good pitching, especially when you have pitch counts,” Morris said. “That’s what we’ve relied on when we have been (in the regional tournament) in the past, and we have a lot of it this year.”
Northern’s pitching staff includes Jacob Pate, Troy Gilliland, Zac Cravens, Kobie Buglioli, Brandon Pugh and Blake Hicks.
“They have all stepped up for us,” Morris said. “Every one of them has done a good job when we needed them, and we’ll need them all now.”
Several Northern players said they agree that quality pitching likely will be the difference this week and the team has little drop-off between its top starters and relievers.
“We have a lot of good pitchers, and four or five guys are throwing in the 70s,” Cravens said. “I think we’ll be pretty good with our pitching.”
Pugh said the team is preparing for the unexpected, too. With state champions from Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, Northern will have little advance knowledge of their opponents.
“There are going to be a lot of good teams, and we have to be ready to play against teams we have never seen before,” Pugh said. “We have to keep hitting the ball really well because there are going to be good defenses and good offenses.”
The Northern roster: No. 18 Kobie Buglioli; No. 10 Knox Carter; No. 11 Jack Copley; No. 2 Zac Cravens; No. 25 Troy Gilliland; No. 6 Blake Hicks; No. 19 Mathew Lang; No. 3 Jalen Latta; No. 14 Jacob Pate; No. 9 Brandon Pugh; No. 16 Cason Sizemore; No. 29 Jack Tanner.
Chris White, 706-571-8571, twitter.com/le_chriswhite