TOCCOA — With the beginning of school mere days away in Houston County, Warner Robins American Little League manager Randy Jones had no problem giving his players a bit of homework Monday night.
After his team outlasted host team Toccoa at the state tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds that afternoon, Jones laid out the assignment: Write down one thing the players could do individually to make the team better and one thing the team could do collectively.
The late-summer-vacation lesson could prove genius if the two-time defending champs are to return to the Southeast Regional tournament for a third straight year.
On Tuesday, after Warner Robins knocked off Brooks Area 15-4, Jones dug into a blue, five-gallon ball bucket and fished out the homework. Most were on scraps of paper. One was penned on a paper plate.
“I’ve got the little gifts y’all left me right here,” Jones said, holding up the wad of notes. “I’m gonna share some.”
“Be positive at all times,” Jones read, citing player Blake Jackson’s suggestion. “Be prepared for competition.”
Jackson was just that Tuesday. Jackson, one of three returnees from last year’s squad, surrendered a first-inning grand slam. Then he went on to wallop a long, arcing homer to center, a jolt that one-hopped the Doyle Street Park concession stand, later in the game.
Jones mentioned the early game grand slam by Brooks, a resounding shot over the scoreboard that banged off the metal-roofed picnic pavilion, to preach the importance of resilience.
“That was a tough moment when their guy hit that ball on top of that roof,” Jones said to his players after the game. “That brought up the question: What are we made of?”
Brooks managed only two hits the rest of the way.
Reliever Conner Smith came on with two outs in the second. After Jackson walked three and hit a batter, Smith had no trouble finding the plate. That was appropriate because Smith, who retired 10 batters in order, including five strikeouts, to close it out, turned in his “homework” on a paper plate.
Wrote Smith: “Our team should have been more in the game.”
Tuesday it was. Despite a vocal contingent backing the Brooks team from Fayette County — a group that serenaded its blue-clad all-stars with chants of “bluuuuue whales!” throughout the game — Warner Robins drowned out the cheers, posting runs in every inning to pull away.
The “homework” kept paying dividends.
Kyle King, who’d gone 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in the tourney’s first two games, said in his note to the coach that he needed to “Work on my swing ... and not swing for the fence.”
King jacked a pair of homers to right, including a three-run shot, as he drove in five and scored three times.
Justin Jones, the coach’s son and another of the returning Warner Robins all-stars, finished the day 2-for-4 with a double.
“I think we were coming into the game thinking we were gonna kill everybody,” he said. “It helped when they hit that grand slam (Tuesday). It got our heads on straight.”
A little homework didn’t hurt either.