The banner is there for all to see and so far, it appears the message has hit home.
When practice started for the Ahwatukee Little League (ALL) in preparation for the District 13 tournament, which continues through July 10 at Tempe Sports Complex, a banner was placed near the field that reads: PrACTice like champions.
“We have to act like champions before we can become one,” ALL Majors coach Dan McKeon said. “We are talking about respecting the fact that they are on the team and there were 20 guys who tried out and didn’t make it. We are preaching the idea of being selfless.”
It’s not a new concept, but it doesn’t always get through to 11- and 12-year-olds who are used to being the guy in the middle of the lineup.
“It’s all about putting the team ahead of you,” said pitcher Tim Thetford, a 12-year-old who goes to Altadena. “We are not going to very far if we do. This is a really hard district. If you think, ‘I am better than that kid, and I should be playing more than him,’ then you don’t deserve to be on the team.”
It’s a great approach that McKeon and his staff have gone out of their way to drill into “The Men in Teal.”
“Everyone one of the guys batted second, third or fourth on their Little League team, and now they might be batting once,” McKeon said. “They have to learn that and be selfless. We have talked about getting tapped on the shoulder and being replaced. He’s not taking your at-bat; he is taking the team’s at bat. He’s not taking your spot; he is taking the team’s spot.
“You have to be selfless.”
The Majors won their first three games (out of five) without much trouble (33-12 scoring difference) and were assured a spot in the semifinals (July 8), most likely as the second seed after losing to Chandler National North 5-3 on Wednesday night.
Half of the players on the team were on last year’s Minors (10-11) team that won the district before finishing fourth in state. While they enjoyed that run, they know this is the year everyone wants to make a run for it all.
Everyone knows this age level gets all of the focus simply because it is tied to a regional trip to San Bernardino, Calif., that could lead to a plane ride to Williamsport, Pa.
“I always watch it on ESPN and thought about playing there someday,” said Tyler Kearney, who led off Tuesday’s game with a home run. “It’s so awesome.”
“All we have talked about is the next game,” McKeon said. “We want to win the district, but we haven’t talked about anything beyond the district. The best chance to win the district is to be the No. 1 seed and that’s what we are focused on.
“We did say to them that they have to decide to play as a team and be selfless. If they do that, it will allow us to play longer (than districts).”
This team, however, does appear to have the intangibles that are reminiscent of the Ahwatukee and Chandler teams that have made it all the way in the past.
Not only are they good on defense, have some good arms and have bought into the team concept, they are huge for their age. There are about four players who look like they could have driven themselves to the game.
And all great Little League teams always have those kids who look way too big for their age group. The type who pound home runs (eight different players went deep in three games) and the fans on the other side make snide comments about asking for birth certificate to verify their age.
“They are huge and they can hit the ball 300 feet,” the diminutive Kearney said in disbelief.
While McKeon feels like they put together a quality team, it didn’t come without struggle when it came to deciding some of the final roster cuts.
“It’s terribly hard,” he said. “You have to look at what you have to fill out the team. If you have 10 guys and you need 14, you look at the parts that will help you most and not necessarily the best player. We had so many substitutions. It’s a powerful lineup, but you have to match that with defense and pitching.
“Then they have to know their role, accept it and keep being selfless.”
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.