Since 1978, no team from Lexington has played in the Little League Baseball World Series.
The team looking to end that 39-year drought is the Eastern Little League All-Stars, who will be making their first regional appearance this weekend since 1953. Eastern’s team is comprised of the best 12-year-old players from the league’s 2017 season.
If Eastern walks away from the Little League Great Lakes Regional tournament as champions, they will become the first Eastern team in history to go to the LLWS.
“They kind of got a feel of the history of baseball in Lexington, and they’re looking forward to the challenge,” head coach Jeff Ginnan said.
To help his team understand the history, Ginnan brought in Pat Sullivan from the 1953 Eastern team and Danny Johnson from the 1978 South Lexington club to talk to his boys.
Eastern also got a visit from University of Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione before heading to Westfield, Ind., for the Great Lakes Regional.
Kentucky’s state champions will take on Indiana’s top team, New Albany, in its opening game Sunday evening. Other teams competing in the six-team, double-elimination Great Lakes Regional are from Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.
“There’s going to be some stiff competition,” “I think we’re — we definitely are in the mix in terms of, ‘can we win it?’ Yes, but there’s going to be five other really good teams up there, too.” Ginnan said.
Eastern has the talent to win the regional, Ginnan thinks, with solid batters one through nine and a good amount of pitching.
What might help Eastern the most though is its team chemistry.
“A lot of these kids have been playing together since they were 5, 6, 7 years old,” Ginnan said. “Every kid that plays Little League, that’s their dream, to get to Williamsport (Pennsylvania, site of the LLWS).”
That bond was evident at a recent Eastern practice. The kids were constantly sharing high-fives and rewarding good plays with compliments.
Anytime you get a group of 12-year-old kids to give up their entire summer for a common goal, it’s a really cool thing to watch.
The kids have also shown a mature ability to communicate on the diamond, such as when two players are going after a fly ball.
“It helps us not play as tight, we know that we trust each other and it helps us play a little loose,” first baseman Harrison Tibe said.
The players also get a lot of support from parents and coaches. Eastern’s coaching staff includes two former collegiate pitchers in Marty DeGraff (Notre Dame) and Tom Robeson (UK).
“We have good BP (batting practice) throwers, they throw pretty hard, they get us ready,” shortstop Grady Johnson said. “Our coaches do a great job getting us ready for each game.”
Eastern Little League has sponsored a bus to bring fans to Sunday’s opening game. The regional takes place just north of Indianapolis.
“We’re definitely going to take at least one bus load of folks up there, which will be 50 or 60 people, then there will be the folks that just travel on their own,” said Jon Woodall, president of Eastern Little League. “There will be quite a following. I think Little League is going to be kind of surprised when they see just how many.”
That interest in part derives from how long it’s been since Lexington has tasted a Little League World Series. Lexington leagues from other organizations such as Cal Ripken Baseball have produced champions through the years, but none have reached the national showcase of Williamsport since South Lexington Little League placed third there in 1978.
Fans who cannot make it to Indianapolis will be able to watch Sunday’s game live online on ESPN3.com and the WatchESPN app. ESPN will televise the final three games of the regional Aug. 10-12.
The players have had Williamsport on their minds all along, but to be only four wins away from it has the kids thinking big.
“I know that we’re capable of winning this thing, we all worked our tails off, I think we got a good shot,” Tibe said.
Chris Leach: 859-231-1326, @chrisleach250
Little League Great Lakes Regional
What: Youth baseball tournament for 12-year-old all-stars
Where: Grand Park sports complex in Westfield, Ind.
When: Aug. 6-12.
Who: State champions from Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin
Eastern Little League’s first game: Sunday at 7 p.m. vs. Indiana
How to watch: Sunday’s game is available online only at ESPN3.com or on the WatchESPN app.
Here are the players and coaches who will represent Eastern Little League in the Great Lakes Regional:
Players: Ty Bryant, Braxton Burse, Max DeGraff, Dylan Ginnan, Leighton Harris, Joey Howard, Grady Johnson, Graham Johnson, Will Kessinger, Brady Robeson, Chase Rose, Harrison Tibe, Caleb Wombles, Drew Bowles (Alternate).
Coaches: Manager Jeff Ginnan, pitching coaches Marty DeGraff and Tom Robeson, and assistants Cisco Bryant and John Johnson.