Is there anything more pure than Little League All-Star baseball?
If there is, it is a short list.
The District 26 All-Star season began June 22 with a ceremony and games at Lakewood Ranch Park. As the area's teams came together to begin their hopeful journey to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Series in August. Lakewood Ranch Little League held a ceremony for everyone, including opposing teams, acknowledging a job well done.
The teams trotted around the infield before Lakewood Ranch Little League Commissioner Doug Kovatch said a few words of encouragement and thanks. Kovatch's son, Trevor Kovatch, played the National Anthem on a piano. It was a classy affair and one well-deserved for the kids.
The all-stars season is a lot of work for the kids, the coaches and the parents. It's also an honor to be selected.
After the ceremony, of course, the games began, and memories were made.
Growing up, I played baseball in the Olney Boys and Girls Club in Olney, Maryland. Since our organization wasn't technically affiliated with Little League, I never had the chance to go to Williamsport, but I did play in a number of intra-league All-Star games. Some of my favorite sports memories came from those experiences.
One had nothing to do with the game itself. I was standing in the outfield listening to the National Anthem when the (adult) singer's voice cracked on the word "free." Perhaps I should say the note was butchered. The game was an afterthought at that point as it was the funniest thing I had heard in my 8-year-old life.
Other times, the games did take center stage. I will never forget the All-Star game I played when I was 10 years old. My team, coached by my father, Marc Kohn, went up against a team coached by Kenny Roy, a former University of Maryland star defensive back and my former youth football coach. My team got off to a horrible start. I don't remember the exact number of runs we were down, but it was at least 10 by the bottom of the fifth inning. I remember being frustrated as nothing was gong right. But we couldn't get embarrassed liked that during an All-Star game. We had to keep playing.
My dad kept the dugout talk positive. Our first few batters of the fifth inning reached base. Then a funny thing happened: We just kept hitting. We scored a handful of runs off the incumbent pitcher and then, as I was coming to the plate, "Coach Kenny" decided to change pitchers. This was quite the precarious situation. I felt like I had to get a hit off the new guy in order to keep the momentum going. I decided to go against my usual instincts and swing at the first pitch, figuring the pitcher would expect me to take it in order to see his stuff. My instincts were good. He threw a fastball over the heart of the plate. I was a bit late on it, but I managed to slash it into right field for an RBI single.
After that the comeback was complete. My team scored enough that inning to take the lead, then held the other team scoreless in the sixth to capture the victory.
I won multiple championships as an amateur athlete — and a few journalism awards as an adult — yet that All-Star game comeback victory still ranks high among my proudest accomplishments. Being in that dugout as my team got hit after hit, crawling closer and closer on the scoreboard, was like having 120 volts of electricity flowing through my body. I'll never forget it.
The Lakewood Ranch Little League 8-9-10 All-Star team didn't need that type of comeback June 22 against Buffalo Creek Little League. Lakewood Ranch blew out Buffalo Creek 13-3 in five innings.
It was the type of game where everyone contributed to the win. Other than an inside-the-park solo home run from Ben Kloss, which saw him flying around the bases, there were few extra base hits. The team's offense came from consistency, taking advantage of Buffalo Creek defensive mistakes. On the mound, James Clark and Luke Powers combined for an efficient outing. Buffalo Creek did not score after the second inning.
The All-Star players might know each other from league play, but they only had approximately three weeks to come together as a team before play began. That they started this All-Star run with a blowout win is a testament to the job coaches Josh Batey, Dominick Bennese and Edward Thomas did getting the kids ready to play. The kids know what is at stake and they have no illusions about how tough the road to Williamsport will be. Lakewood Ranch won't overlook any opponent, and they expected a tougher time from Buffalo Creek should they see them again in the double-elimination tournament.
"They were saving some better pitchers," Eddie Thomas said. "They will be tougher next time. But we can still handle them."
Most importantly, the kids looked like they were having a blast. After Kloss's home run, he ran back to the dugout with his arms outstretched like a fighter jet from "Top Gun: Maverick." He stuck his tongue out. His teammates gave him powerful high fives and tapped him on the head. All game, Lakewood Ranch was active, chanting and encouraging each other and asking the coaching staff the right questions. At one point, Mario Reyes correctly pointed out to his team that Buffalo Creek had made a change at catcher, going to a catcher who didn't have a strong throwing arm. They took advantage, stealing at will. It was not only a savvy note to make but a sign that everyone was fully engaged in the game. At that age, that only happens if everyone is having a great time.
Not that it was a mystery.
"All-Stars is so much fun," Gustavo Omana said. "It's a challenge and I love it. I want to go against the best players in the area. It's how you get better."
That's the right attitude to have. These kids and the other Lakewood Ranch teams in various age divisions will never forget playing in All-Star competition, whether they go all the way to Williamsport or fail to get out of the district round.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.