UNION COUNTY — Union County’s Machine-Pitch Juniors All-Star Team defeated Lancaster and Gaffney to win Saturday’s tournament championship.
“The future of Union County baseball is very, very bright!” said Dean Gregory, head coach of Union County’s Dixie Youth Machine-Pitch Juniors All-Star team after practicing with the team for a week and a half following the regular season and then defeating Lancaster and Gaffney to win the championship tournament over the weekend at Timken Sports Complex.
Union County’s All-Star team consisted of 12 players who were selected through voting by each of the regular-season coaches, and at least one player from each of the regular-season teams made All-Stars.
The All-Stars chosen included six players from the Farm Bureau team — LJ Bates, DJ Gregory, Parker Cromer, Hayden Garner, Drew Loftis and Jaylon Davis; two players from the Police Club team — Kade Griffin and Shiro Stewart; two players from Founders — Maddox Cooper and Chase Heatherly; Leeland Edenfield from P&C Mechanical; and Corley Turner from Wade’s Employment. The head coach of the regular-season City Champion Farm Bureau team — Dean Gregory — served as head coach of the All-Star team. Assistant coaches were Troy Bates, Jennifer Cooper, Stanley Griffin, Michael Garner. Gregory mentioned that parents Wayne Heatherly, Rocky Cooper, Jason Turner and Nikki Cromer also devoted lots of time and helped out the team tremendously.
There were three teams in the tournament — Union County, Lancaster and Gaffney. The winner was supposed to be the team that won the most games, and in the case of a tie, the team that allowed the least number of defensive runs was to be the winner.
On Saturday, Union County defeated Lancaster 12-2, and then defeated Gaffney 22-8 in what Gregory described as miserable heat. On Sunday, Lancaster defeated Union County 12-10, and Union County defeated Gaffney 20-2.
Gregory said one factor that made the win impressive was that the team was announced only a week and a half before the tournament, giving players a short amount of time to practice together, with many having to learn to play new positions.
“I did not know five- and six-year-old kids could play at that level — double plays, unassisted double plays, backhanded catches and throws, hitting the cutoff man perfectly from the outfield to second base,” Gregory said. “It may be second nature when you’re 12, but these five- and six-year-olds played outstanding. It’s amazing that it got like that in such a short amount of time.”
Gregory commended Dixie Youth President Tommy Ford and Secretary/Treasurer Kelly Small for spearheading efforts to have a division for ages five and six in Union County.
“I would just like to say how proud I am of that whole Machine Pitch Juniors League,” Small said. “We have some awesome coaches who do a great job teaching these kids real baseball. Our goal is teaching baseball fundamentals as early as possible. As these kids come up through the league we will have more competitive baseball games and players who are ready to play baseball at the middle school and high school levels.”
Small also said she is excited about the future of the tournament.
“We are working with Dixie Youth at the State level to try to increase participation in the Machine Pitch program,” she said. “Tournament participation increased by one team this year and we hope that next year we will have even more as more counties in South Carolina become aware that Machine Pitch is an option for five- and six-year-olds.”
Gregory said five-year-olds are typically still playing tee-ball, and six-year-olds are typically grouped with seven- and eight-year-olds.
“We’re so much ahead of other counties,” Gregory said. “But we’re catching up to Lancaster.”
Gregory said while Lancaster has had a division for ages five and six for years, Union County is in its second year of offering baseball for that specific age group. Lancaster won last year’s All-Star tournament. Gregory also pointed out that over half of the five- and six-year-olds on the Lancaster team had played up a level during the regular season, on the same teams as seven- and eight-year-olds. Some of those Lancaster players who didn’t make All-Stars for the seven- and eight-year-old division were placed on the All-Star team for their own age group.
Gregory said he knew what to expect from the players he coached throughout the regular season, but he was impressed by the players from the other teams.
“It was really a joy getting to know some of the players I coached against all year,” Gregory said. “I got to see how good they really were. They really impressed me. From now on when I see them, I’ll know them and they’ll know me.”
He said each of the players stepped up and played at an All-Star level, excelling as their skills were fine tuned.
“What made us stand out was our defense,” Gregory said. “Every kid knew what to do with the ball before it came to them. That is because of practice, practice, practice.”
Gregory said he pushes the children during practice.
“If they make a bad throw or miss a ball, they have to drop their glove and run to the pole and back,” he said, adding that the children eventually began to run on their own when they made a mistake.
Gregory also said his team was impressive offensively.
“At the plate … Wow!” he said. “They hit the ball consistently better than the other teams. It wasn’t even close.”
Gregory mentioned that Corley Turner got a hit during every at-bat. He also said Chase Heatherly and Kade Griffin were power hitters who scored inside-the-park home runs and several RBIs a piece.
“They were in the middle of the line-up where they needed to be, and they hit the ball hard every time,” Gregory said.
Lead-off hitter LJ Bates scored two inside-the-park home runs, and Gregory said Bates is gifted with speed.
“If (Bates) touches the ball, you won’t throw him out,” Gregory said.
Gregory also commended catcher Drew Loftis, who caught during all four games played during the tournament, wearing heavy catching equipment in extreme heat. Gregory said Loftis never complained and never wanted to come off the field, no matter how many times he was asked.
Shortstop Parker Cromer was voted team captain by his teammates.
“He doesn’t say much; he leads by example on the field,” Gregory said.
Gregory said there was not one bad player on his team, and he was honored to coach each of them.
“The team played four brilliant ball games, and anybody who was out there will say the same,” Gregory said. “They played their hearts out and left it all on the field.”
The nine- and 10-year-old All-Stars from Union County will travel to York to play this Saturday, and Union County will host the O-Zone Division state tournament in July.