Ryan Haines, the manager of the 8 and under girls Warner Robins American Little League Rookie All-Star team, knew from the start that he and coaches Ricky Nelson and Jason Sanford would have their work cut out for them.
It wasn’t that they did not have an abundance of talent, because they did. But after an entire season of playing with a coach pitching to the hitters, his team would all of a sudden be hitting against live pitching and basically be playing with normal fast pitch rules.
And to go along with that, Haines would have to come up with a pitching staff of his own.
But in the end, that did not deter the 8 and under team as it rolled through the district tournament and then captured the state tournament with a 13-9 win over Toccoa. To make things even more special, the game was played on the Southeastern Little League field in Warner Robins on Father’s Day.
“I told my daughter Katelyn, who is on the team, that all I wanted for Father’s Day was a state championship, and that’s the first thing she brought up to me after we won,” Haines said. “We knew if we made it to the state championship game it would be played on the Southeastern Little League field, and that just added to the excitement of it all. We drive by that field all the time, and it was like a dream come true to get to play on it.”
The road to the state championship was not easy. Haines and his coaches had to do a lot of teaching in a two-week period.
“We had to start with the basics and work our way up,” Haines said. “These girls have never been able to draw a walk, or steal bases or advance a base when the catcher misses the ball, so we had to work on all of that. It was frustrating at times, but the kids really bought into the plan, and obviously we could not have done it without the support of all the parents.”
Haines quickly realized that the most important part of the team would be the pitching.
“Going in we felt like we had my daughter Katelyn and Hailey Sanford who had taken pitching lessons and we would be set,” Haines said. “They both threw very hard, but struggled with their control. We realized right away that we needed to throw strikes to be successful. That’s where two girls who had never pitched, Riley Nelson and Heidi Sapp stepped in. Riley won the district championship game for us, and Heidi, who had only pitched once in the district and state tournament, came in and did a great job in the state championship game and got the win.”
Haines was also quick to give credit to leadoff hitter Rayven Hodridge.
“She went into the state tournament with a perfect on base percentage, so you really can’t beat that,” Haines said. “We just had a great effort from every single player, and it was a fun group to coach. I really hate that it’s over.”
Team members included Mackenzie Crumley, Rayven Hodridge, Hailey Sanford, Katelyn Haines, Emma Jordan, Heidi Sapp, Anna Dean, Riley Nelson, Kharisma White, Chloe Hill, Olivia Rozell and Maralyne Belcher.