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Jackson heads to Midwest Plains Regional with something to prove
The Jackson Senior Babe Ruth baseball team will begin play today at the Midwest Plains Regional with unfinished business.
During Tuesday's final practice before leaving for the tournament, Jackson players and coaches acknowledged they remembered last year's regional championship well.
Jackson entered the bottom half of the final inning of the 2009 regional championship with a 7-5 lead after its offense had plated six runs off the Minnesota Mudhens in the top of the frame.
The Mudhens' offense put together a rally of its own in the bottom of the seventh, scoring three runs after two outs had been recorded. The next day Jackson suffered another heart-breaking defeat, losing the winner-take-all championship 6-2 in extra innings.
With an 8-6 win over the Charleston Fighting Squirrels on Sunday, Jackson took home the state championship and again advanced to regionals.
"It's a shot at revenge," Jackson outfielder and pitcher Alex Beussink said. "We had to be beat twice in the championship last year. We were out of pitching. This year we've got some good pitchers and I don't see how we could run out."
While Jackson may have more pitching depth this season, it was confronted with the additional obstacle of travel. Last year the regional tournament took place in Charleston, Mo., only 50 miles south of Jackson. This year's tournament will be more than 500 miles from Jackson, in Wellington, Kan.
"I've driven through the flat land but I've never stayed a night in Kansas," Jackson coach Paul Sander said. "My guess would be most of these kids haven't either. But it's a real thrill to get there."
Sander's son, Jackson second baseman Spencer Sander, said he is looking forward to the trip.
"I think it actually feels a lot better this year," Spencer Sander said. "It's going to feel awesome to drive there and do one of my favorite things in the world -- play baseball."
The Jackson players will stay with host families in Kansas, an experience Beussink is looking forward to repeating.
"I did it once when I was younger with a baseball team and got really close to the host family," Beussink said. "They had nicknames for me and everything. It was a lot of fun."
The team left for Kansas on Wednesday to give the players 36 hours to adapt to the new setting before they play today.
"Our pitching is good, but it's not overpowering," Paul Sander said. "If we field it we will be fine. If we have a defensive lapse and have a four- or five-out inning, we are going to get scored on."
Playing good defense is something shortstop B.I. Howard said his coach has echoed to the team the entire season.
"The one thing coach told us at the beginning of the year is even if you're not hitting you can always hustle and play good defense," Howard said. "Coach said if we play good defense that keeps us in games. We work on defense every practice."
The Jackson offense enters the regional averaging 10.5 runs per game in its last four games.
"That's the beauty of baseball. You never really know if the hitting will stay hot or not," Paul Sander said. "We are hitting unusually well. There's no way to predict if that will continue, you just hope it does."
Jackson's Ross Carter has devised a plan to help ensure his offensive success will continue.
"I've just got to keep the same mind set where I'm looking for my pitch," Carter said. "When I get it I'm going to knock the crap out of it."
Jackson has not lost a game since clinching a postseason berth and holds an overall record of 27-4.
"I think another big part of success this year and last year is the really, really good team chemistry this team has, these kids genuinely get along," Paul Sander said. "They really enjoy playing ball with each other. I think you can win a lot of games by having good team chemistry and we really have it."
Jackson is one of eight teams in the regional tournament. State champions from Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, North Dakota and Minnesota will also participate. The host team from Wellington, Kan., and the Charleston Fighting Squirrels, who were invited after Nebraska dropped out of the competition, will also compete.
"Those teams out there are extremely well coached and extremely well organized," Paul Sander said. "They come from towns that have long traditions of Senior Babe Ruth."
Jackson will play the state champion from Iowa in the first round of the double-elimination regional at 5 p.m. today. The first championship game is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday, with an if necessary winner-take-all championship game scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday.
"This year we've got a better overall team," assistant coach Stan Minson said. "Last year we had four or five boys that were excellent and then we had the rest of the group. This year we've got the bulk of our boys at the same talent level."
Regardless of what happens during the regional tournament, Paul Sander said his kids have already achieved something memorable, becoming the first 16- to 18-year-old Jackson Senior Babe Ruth team to win a state championship.
"Everything from here on out is icing on the cake," Paul Sander said. "They've already accomplished a real special goal that they can tell their kids, 'I was a state champion.' If we keep playing well, we've got as good of a chance as anybody. We're confident, but also realistic there are other really good teams."