Special to The Sentinel-Echo
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
BUCKNER--One run was all it took. When Austin Rudder raced home from second on Ray Hays’ single in the bottom of the first, North Laurel led the Senior League state championship game 1-0. Little did anyone know at the time, but that would be enough to secure a state title for the London team.
With Hays handcuffing the Madison County team with a stellar performance on the mound, Coach Bill Abner’s squad made the run stand up, and will now be able to hang a championship banner at the North Laurel Little League fields.
“You don’t get many 1-0 games at this level,” Abner said. “They are the most nerve-wracking of all, because every pitch, every play, is magnified. But we made every play tonight defensively, and Ray was beyond phenomenal on the mound.”
Rudder had led off the first by being hit by a pitch, advanced to second on a Dylan Messer single, then scored on Hays’ hit. But North would get only one more hit the rest of the evening, a sixth-inning double from Messer, who hit .600 for the week.
Richmond was matching North play for play on the defensive side, and the London team was not getting too many good looks against curve baller Bryson Scott. “He had a nice breaking ball, but we were too impatient trying to do too much with it,” Abner said.
Hays allowed a single and walk in the first, but got out of it with no damage, then proceeded to retire 13 of the next 15 hitters he faced. “His command was unbelievable tonight,” Abner said. “We call pitches and location from the dugout, and he was spot on almost every pitch.”
But things really got tense when Hays finally ran into some trouble in the sixth. A leadoff walk, one of only two he allowed on the night, was followed by a single, putting two on with no outs. But Hays battled back, striking out the cleanup hitter, then getting pop ups that were handled on nice catches by second baseman Braxston Hicks in shallow right and Ryan Abner, who ran down a drive in right-center.
North nearly added insurance in the bottom of the sixth when Messer doubled with one out. But Jake McWhorter’s two-out rope to right was snagged on a nice play, setting up a dramatic final inning.
After getting the first out, Hays saw a Richmond batter loft a high, deep fly to right that Tori Bowling lost in the lights. With a runner now on second with one out, Hays buckled down again, getting Scott on a called third strike, then inducing a grounder to second from the Richmond leadoff hitter, that Hicks gobbled up for the final out of a championship run.
“No errors and only two walks,” Abner said afterward. “That is the kind of performance you dream about getting, the kind you should win with. And Richmond played super too. This was a great baseball game.
“You know, some of these kids have played every summer together for 13 years now, started playing tee-ball together when they were three,” Abner pointed out. “We’ve been chasing this for a long time. We’ve been close, won the Little League District in 2010, were state runner-up in Junior League in 2011, but now they can hang that banner. I couldn’t be happier for them.”
North will now represent Kentucky in the Central Region in Peru, Illinois the first week in August.
“We are planning on sending a team, although not all of the kids are going to be able to make it,” Abner explained. “We’ve got some that had vacations already planned, plus football season is getting close, and we’ve got some guys that will be key players for North. Coach (Chris) Larkey has always been fantastic about letting them miss for baseball, but they are getting awfully close to the regular season, so those kids really need to get on the field. We need to show him the same courtesy he has always shown us.”
“But no matter what happens there, it has been a fantastic summer.”