For a moment, forget about the 8U Optimist baseball All-Stars’ fourth place finish in the Cal Ripken Southeastern Regionals this past weekend, which stands amongst the best-ever showings for any Optimist squad. To truly comprehend the magnitude of what the 8U All-Stars accomplished, all one needs to do is the math.
Three consecutive weeks, 15+ hours of practice, 17 games, six states and 1500 miles marks the path traveled for the 8U All-Stars who were assembled barely a month ago. But it was all worth it for the families who sacrificed their time and energy to make it happen, as well as the coaching staff led by head coach Scott Sellers who guided the 8U All-Stars the entire way.
As a lifelong Laurinburg who still reminisces about his childhood days as an Optimist baseball player, Sellers wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
“I’m 42 years old and I still find myself talking to my friends about growing up and playing baseball,” Sellers said. “I don’t think at this time these 8 year-olds fully understand their achievement, but I know in time these athletes will end up talking about these games the way us grownups still talk about our experiences.”
The journey began June 29th when the Laurinburg 8U All-Stars traveled to Sanford, NC, for the Cal Ripken District 1 tournament championship. After obtaining a first-round bye, the 8U All-Stars competed in four games during the tournament including three against the Northview All-Stars out of Lee County. Splitting the first two games, the third and deciding championship game saw the 8U All-Stars close out Northview via the emphatic 11-1 win. It was a game that saw Stewart Evans hit two home runs to help propel his team to a four-inning victory, and Evans was named the game MVP following the 8U All-Stars’ championship win.
Returning home Monday, the days to follow would see the 8U All-Stars show their willingness to make the necessary sacrifices in order keep pace with the increasing competition which lay ahead. The morning of July 4th wasn’t spent preparing for outdoor barbecues or fireworks displays, but rather for batting practice.
“A goal of ours from the start was to take the bar and rise it just a little higher for next year’s group to try to surpass,” Sellers said. “Scotland County is a baseball town, and in a lot of people’s eyes Optimist baseball is the amateur sport of choice. We just wanted to do our town proud once we realized that we had a good team on our hands.”
After a few days of practice during the holiday week, the 8U All-Stars again hit the road and made their way to Wake Forest for the ENC state baseball tournament, which featured 22 teams from throughout North Carolina. The All-Stars went 6-1 in seven games played, surrendering their one and only loss in the championship against a perennial powerhouse West Raleigh team by the score of 14-4.
It was an opponent that 8U All-Stars would see again down the road.
But despite the loss, the Laurinburg 8U All-Stars’ championship appearance in the ENC tournament qualified the squad for the Cal Ripken Southeastern Regional tournament, which would give the All-Stars a chance to showcase their talent against teams from the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, and Florida.
The location of tournament?Andalusia, Alabama, approximately 550 miles away. And though the drive would take an estimated nine-hours from start to finish, it didn’t stop 41 players, coaches and family members from packing their bags and taking off, including the family of Drew Hamilton who packed seven people into their van for the trip.
The journey and arrival wasn’t without bumps in the road, however, as the Cooke family found out. 8U All-Star Nick Cooke rode with coach Sellers and his son Jackson because his parents Jeff and Amanda couldn’t depart with the rest of the team at 6:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. Each had job responsibilities to fulfill. And due to the team’s late entry into the field of 20, not a single hotel inside Andalusia (which is comparable in size to Laurinburg) was available to rent, with the nearest non-booked hotel located an hour away which forced the team to wake up early each morning just to get to the field in time.
“My wife Amanda hadn’t missed a game of Nick’s in four years before this past week, which probably hurt the most,” said Jeff Cooke, who arrived with Amanda in Andalusia late Thursday night after missing their son’s first two tournament pool games. “But it’s one of those things where you push through it because you know it will be worth it in the end. Not too many 8 year olds get the chance to travel to Alabama just to play the game they love, and we as parents and coaches owe these kids a chance to do that.”
The majority of the 41 people who made the trip opted to stay in the same hotel, but it wouldn’t last long. After surviving the first few days of pool play, the single elimination tournament began Saturday morning, and as the field of 20 dwindled to eight, it allowed the 8U All-Star family to relocate to Andalusia for the remainder of the tournament. Their first knockout elimination game was against the Fishhawks out of Tampa, FL, a team that was the undefeated state champion of Florida heading into the Southeastern Regional tournament. The 8U All-Stars would win the game 8-6 and oust the Fishhawks from the tournament, as Christian Cole was a perfect 3-3 with three runs scored from the plate and was joined by Parker Byrd, Evans and Bryan Grubbs who each went 2-3 with multiple runs scored.
With the win, the 8U All-Stars made it to the final four of the tournament which took place on Sunday July 15th. Out of the four teams to make it to the semi-final elimination round, three including the Laurinburg All-Stars were from North Carolina: They were joined by the Matthews 8U All-Stars and West Raleigh, who defeated Laurinburg a short week ago to become the NC state champions.
The 8U All-Stars would again face West Raleigh, losing 8-1 in the semi-finals to end their tournament run. West Raleigh would go on to win the entire Cal Ripken Southeastern Regional tournament.
“It’s tough when little Scotland County gets stacked up against a team like Raleigh that has such a huge pool of players to select from,” Sellers said. “These kids were feeling the loss afterwards, but it wasn’t long before they started asking their coaches and parents if they could go swimming or eat at their favorite restaurant. And all the while the adults were still astonished by how far these kids had come. I guess that’s the power of being an 8 year-old.”
And if the adults were feeling exhausted after their three-week Optimist odyssey, 8U All-Star second baseman Nick Cooke couldn’t relate. The team had gotten home Sunday night, but Monday morning father Jeff awoke to the sounds of Nick playing with his Cal Ripken tournament bat (given to all tournament participants) in the living room. Base pads were defined by shoes, hats and whatever else Nick could find in the living room.
Because the experience may have ended for Nick Cooke, but not his love of baseball.
“I’ve already made a promise to myself that I will never quit baseball,” said Cooke, who will be a third-grader at South Scotland Elementary School in the fall. “My teammates are like my second family.”