As Northern has climbed the Little League tournament ladder all the way to Williamsport, two local high school coaches have been paying attention.
Columbus High coach Bobby Howard and Northside coach David Smart have seen a majority of the team’s games.
Who better to help break down this Northern team than two men who in the coming years will likely be coaching the players as they move into high school?
Smart and Howard are equally impressed with manager Randy Morris’ team.
Northern is a perfect 16-0 in tournament play. Along the way to Williamsport, Northern has won the District 8, Georgia state and Southeastern Regional titles.
The team has been overpowering at times and, at other times, shown an uncanny ability to pull out late-inning victories.
One of the things Smart does is watch the players’ reactions to good and bad plays.
“The thing that is most impressive to me is there is no bad body language,” Smart said. “That is even hard for high school kids to do, much less Little Leaguers.”
Howard has been impressed by the athletic ability.
“They have a physicality and one dominant pitcher,” Howard said. “They find a way to win.”
That dominant pitcher is Jacob Pate, an eighth-grader at Midland Middle School.
In the Southeastern Regional, Pate won three games, had a 2.19 ERA and struck out 24 batters in 12.1 innings. All three runs Pate allowed in the regional came off solo home runs.
Smart and Howard agree that Northern has an advantage when Pate is pitching.
“In watching the regional, I haven’t seen a kid that can match his velocity and control,” Smart said.
During the Southeast Regional, Pate was throwing his fastball between 76 and 78 miles per hour.
“That translates into the high 90s from a big-league mound,” Smart said.
But it is the control that makes Pate so overpowering.
“He can put it where he wants to put it,” Smart said.
Like Smart, Howard is impressed with Pate’s demeanor.
“He’s under control at all times — in the dugout or on the mound,” Howard said.
Howard pointed to a play in the regional championship game when Pate fielded a bunt with a runner on second breaking for third. Pate looked at third, thought about making the play, but instead turned and made a perfect throw to first.
“He kept his poise and got the out,” Howard said.
Howard calls Pate “the X factor.”
“I watched him pitch in the regular season and the district and state tournaments,” Hoard said. “The one thing that is impressive is he’s gotten better.”
Howard walked away from the championship game in Warner Robins impressed.
“He has developed a breaking ball that he can throw at will,” Howard said. “He didn’t have that — or he didn’t use it — earlier in the season. He has a get-me-over breaking ball and he has a hard-strike breaking ball.”
Northern catcher Blake Hicks is also a critical part of the championship equation.
“It is tough handling a guy like Jacob Pate,” Smart said. “It can be a difficult job just to catch it.”
Howard, too, is impressed with the Northern battery.
“Pate is by far the best pitcher I have seen in any tournament and Hicks is the best catcher I have seen,” Howard said.
As good as the pitching has been — and it is not just Pate because Northern has gotten quality innings out of starters Troy Gilliland, Hicks, Kobie Bugiloli and Zac Cravens before he injured his elbow in the regional — the defense has been almost as good.
“The one thing that I really like about this team is they do a great job of throwing and catching,” Smart said. “I guess what I mean by that is they are really good defensively. You can count the number of errors on one hand.”
The numbers back that up.
In 16 all-star games in three tournaments, the team has made three errors.
There are big-league clubs that would take that fielding percentage.
“At this level that is a rarity,” Smart said.
Put simply, “If you are going to beat them, they are going to make you beat them because they are not going to beat themselves,” Smart said.Howard said the defense is bolstered by the strong pitching.
“Good pitching has a lot to do with that,” Howard said. “With good pitching you are getting easier plays. But one thing this team does is make every play that is right at them.”
Smart said if Northern has an advantage, it may be in the dugout.
Morris’ experience in winning the World Series in 2006 is valuable as this team tries to make its mark on history.
“To have that experience — nothing can replace that,” Smart said. “Simple things like knowing he needs to go up there a day earlier than last time. It isn’t an accident that Northern has made it to the World Series two times since Randy has been coaching there.”