It’s hard enough to go through a youth baseball season undefeated, but one local team is two wins away from doing it despite fielding only seven players for three of its games.
Shelby Materials enters this week’s 11- and 12-year-old Parks and Rec League tournament with a 10-0 record. The team has 11 players, but because of vacations and other commitments, had two fewer than the standard nine three times.
“It’s tough when you have seven kids like that because according to Cal Ripken rules, that’s the minimum you have to have or you forfeit,” head coach Phillip Elliott said. “You’re sitting there at the gate hoping the parents show up with the kids.”
Shelby Materials didn’t just win those games when it had seven players. It won big. The scores were 24-4, 9-2 and 18-2.
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Assistant coach Chris Tungate said the team played with two outfielders — a left-center fielder and right-center fielder — and no third baseman. The shortstop played near the outfield grass.
“When you only have seven players on the team, you have to position them accordingly,” Tungate said. “You miss people in the infield; you only have two outfielders. You rely on everybody.”
That’s been the case even when Shelby Materials has had close to its full complement of players. The team had all 11 there for the first time last week when it closed the regular season with a 20-4 win against Kiwanis Club.
Since pulling out a 7-6 win in its season opener, Shelby Materials has been on a roll.
“When we got our first win, I believe it was somebody on the team who said we should go undefeated,” shortstop/pitcher Alijah Tungate said. “I think when we got our first win, we just kept going.”
Alijah Tungate is one of five players who have shared most of the pitching duties this season. The others are Zach Wager, Brier Elliott, Cam Stattenfield and Zane Moravec.
The team features two players — brothers Joseph and Jeremiah Jarnigan — who had never played organized baseball prior to this year.
“We have a couple of kids that have never played before who have really come through throughout the season,” Chris Tungate said. “At the beginning, I was concerned, but they’ve stepped up, and they’ve been two of the better players on the team.”
The Jarnigan brothers play primarily in the outfield.
“I wanted to do a sport, and baseball was the only one that was open, so I said I wanted to do baseball,” Jeremiah Jarnigan said. “Then my big brother said he wanted to do baseball, and so did my little brother.”
In the Parks and Rec League, players attend tryouts, and coaches and league officials try to make the teams as even as possible. Following this week’s tournament, tryouts will be conducted to determine 12 All-Stars that will represent the league in hopes of making it to the Little League World Series.
The tournament begins today, with Coca-Cola facing Meridian Kiwanis at 6 p.m. at Clifty Park. Shelby Materials will play Kiwanis Club in the other semifinal at 6 p.m. Tuesday, and the finals are at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Phillip Elliott, who has been coaching his son Brier for six years, won the league title last year with some of the same players. The Elliotts also teamed to go 10-0 and win the 6- and 7-year-old coaches pitch league in their first year playing and coaching.
“As Yogi Berra says, the coach is only as good as the kids you have playing for them,” Phillip Elliott said. “I have a great group of kids, and we’ve had a great season. But 10-0 doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win these next two games.”
The 11- and 12-year-old Parks and Rec League tournament schedule (all games are at Clifty Park):
Coca-Cola vs. Meridian Kiwanis, 6 p.m.
Shelby Materials vs. Kiwanis Club, 6 p.m.
Championship, 6 p.m.