Three Rivers Little League 14U baseball team is getting ready for regional play
Team starts double-elimination tournament in Albuquerque on Aug. 5
In capturing the aura around the Three Rivers Little League (TRLL) 14U team’s trailblazing playoff run, innocence is bliss.
With a Tanner Roberts-led run to the regionals four years ago standing as the TRLL boards’ only memory of a baseball team making it out of the district and state rounds, it’s fair to label TRLL’s three squads (12U, 14U and softball juniors) headed to their respective regions as greenhorns, at least in one sense.
Underdogs? Too far.
“I think they’re feeling pretty good about their chances of winning,” 14U coach August Wittenberg said about his 13 athletes, nine of whom hail from Eagle County (the other four are Roaring Fork Valley products).
Wittenberg and his club recently dug up a Facebook live video of the 2019 regional tournament. The vibe during the scouting report lacked one important feeling: intimidation.
“They looked good, but it looked like we could compete,” he said. “Watching it, (the team) was feeling like, ‘Yeah, they’re going to be better than state, but not so much better that we can’t be the team that wins and goes to the World Series.’”
At Monday’s practice, the boys were getting antsy.
“They don’t want to wait until next week,” Wittenberg said.
On Aug. 5, the TRLL 14U all-stars will face Texas East in the first round of the Junior League Baseball Southwest regional tournament in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Winners of the six-team, double-elimination bracket earn the right to contest the World Series in Taylor, Michigan, from Aug. 14-21.
For casual sporting fans, Little League likely drums up images of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, stadiums with lawn chair-lounging parents making ESPN debuts in the outfield ‘bleachers.’ That would be the 12U division — TRLL has a team in that regional in Waco, Texas, too — but in 14U, the field is metaphorically (and literally) different.
“We’re excited to go to Albuquerque, but we don’t know what we’re going to get,” Wittenberg explained of his opponents. “We don’t know if they’ve had the same depletion from travel ball or what the competition is going to be like.”
While 12U players, lured to the lights of Williamsport, aren’t tempted by traveling teams or locked into high school summer league commitments, the 14U landscape is a little more of a mystery. TRLL took a collaborative approach this year, coming alongside players and clubs so they didn’t have to choose one over the other.
“We’ve been working the last couple years with the local travel teams to try to make it so that the kids can do both,” Wittenberg explained.
The result was that his all-star team — the collection of TRLL’s best players from its Eagle County and Roaring Fork-based regular-season teams — didn’t congregate for a full-team practice once before the district tournament in early July.
“They were all playing and getting practice and live-game action, so we weren’t worried about it,” he said of athletes’ participation with Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain High School programs, and/or the Glenwood Goats or Aspen Colts traveling squads.
“Because we did this, we really had the best kids from Vail to Aspen.”
After leading throughout the district championship, the team survived a late comeback from Colorado River Valley. Trailing 10-9 in the top of the seventh inning, William Townsend singled on a 1-1 count, driving in two runs to propel TRLL to a comeback 11-10 win.
The team rolled through states with a couple of mercy-rule-induced wins, defeating Academy 16-0 in the title match.
“It was pretty equal of everyone helping out,” Wittenberg said. “We don’t have, ‘Oh, we’re not going to be able to go without this guy.’ What I was really proud of was that our boys on defense didn’t make any mistakes and the pitching was flawless. It was really cool to see.”
If the team is to continue on its postseason run, pitching will be key. Little League position rules and pitch-count regulations mean navigating a four (if they win each game) and potentially six-game (a scenario instigated if they lose their second game but proceed to win out) tournament requires a deep bullpen. Wittenberg believes his crew, though not particularly tested in the local rounds, is well-suited for the challenge.
“If you want to go to the World Series, with pitch counts, to be able to have 7-8 strong pitchers is really going to be able to help us,” he said. “Choosing who is going to start that first game is a tough choice because they’re all so good. I think that is going to be a real advantage for us down there.”
Townsend’s dad, Jeff, a former University of Kentucky pitcher with 95-mph heat, is a nice asset on the coaching staff.
“He can throw like 500 pitches a day and never get tired. It’s unbelievable,” Wittenberg laughed of his human batting practice machine.
Even with the ‘late’ start of full-team practices, the team’s chemistry is on point.
“We’ve really kind of found the positions certain people play and I think they’re getting used to each other and being able to focus on their position,” said Wittenberg. “These kids have been getting to know each other — they’re all super happy and excited.”
A fifth-inning rally wasn’t enough for the Three Rivers Little League 12U baseball team in its second southwest regional tournament game on Friday in Texas. The all-star team fell to Louisiana’s Eastbank Little League to end the season.
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