By GREG MENGELT
FORT WAYNE —
After dropping its first game of the Little League 11-12-year-old double-elimination state finals in Fort Wayne, Jeff/GRC has made its way back to the semifinals after Wednesday’s 10-8 win over Valparaiso.
Jeff will face unbeaten Hagerstown at 3:15 today and with a win would face either undefeated Dyer or host Fort Wayne Ayers in tonight’s state championship game.
“It’s a great opportunity to carry on a terrific tradition with Jeff/GRC Little League,” Jeff manager Chuck Latham said. “To get the opportunity to say you’re one of the final four in the state is a great honor and we’re going to see what we can do. [All four semifinalists] are in the same boat, but we’ve got a plan that I think could work.”
A plan has become necessary with pitchers Ethan English and Jack Ellis having completed their allotted innings for the tournament. Jeff will have ace Drew Taylor available. Because of so many games in the elimination bracket and a pair of games on Thursday, the Jeffersonville All-Stars will be down to players who normally don’t pitch.
“We plan on throwing Brady Latham and Luke Stock and maybe Joe LaGrange,” Latham said. “We’re maybe going to try to massage this thing and see what our offense can do. It’s going to take some defense and some offensive power.”
At this point, it would be mistake to doubt Jeff can do it.
“[The first loss] really humbled us,” Latham said, “but we stayed calm. We got the bad one out of the way. We’ve seen a lot of confidence and determination from the players. I believe in them. I’m very proud of them. I couldn’t be prouder of a group.”
On Wednesday, Valparaiso jumped out to a 4-1 lead after one inning and made it 5-1 in the third before Jeff rallied.
“Down 5-1, we easily could have folded our tents,” Latham said. “It never seemed to rattle us. We’re a pretty determined bunch. We got a total team effort today.”
Once again, the effort started with Taylor. After having six RBIs in Monday’s win over Evansville Golfmoor, Taylor opened the third inning with a home run to start a four-run inning to get things started.
“That set the tone,” Latham said. “We could start to feel lit. It was like, “OK, here we go.’ Drew Taylor has been super and he’s become the Drew Taylor that we’re used to. He’s quietly emerging as a super threat for us.”
Stock followed Taylor’s home run with a single. English then walked and Ellis reached on an error that allowed Stock to score. Two outs later, Dylan Whitt brought in both runs with a double.
“Dylan Whitt came in in a substitution role and hit a big two-strike double,” Latham recalled. “That was a big hit in the game.”
After a scoreless Valpo fourth, Jeff took its first lead with five more runs — all with two outs. Taylor was hit by a pitch and Stock reached on a fielder’s choice with one out. English then walked to put two runners on the basepaths. Ellis followed with a three-run homer that gave Jeff the lead for good.
“When we got down, I said, ‘Boys, just be patient and you’ll get your pitch,” Latham recalled. “They were patient. We drew a lot of walks. Getting those runners on was important because we had some very clutch hitting.”
After the Ellis home run, Dylan Robinson drew a walk and Aaron Hernandez singled. Joe LaGrange then cleared the bases with an RBI double and it was a 10-5 Jeff advantage.
Ethan English came in during the first inning and picked up the win. He gave up four runs but struck out six and quelled Valpo’s final rally in the sixth.
“We knew with the rock in his hands, we’d be able to make that kind of comeback and we did,” Latham said. “Ethan was terrific coming in.”
• Jeff still alive in Elkhart: After a heartbreaking eight-inning, 15-7 loss to Seymour on Tuesday, Jeff/GRC bounced back with a 5-4 win against Auburn to stay alive in the 10-11 state tournament at Concord Little League.
Jeff faces Franklin Township today and needs two wins to get to the single-elimination semifinal round on Saturday.
“That was a tough one yesterday,” Jeff manager Jeremy Thomas said. “They got their heads straight today. They focused and came out strong and played really well.”
After being tied 1-1 through three innings, Jeff scored three times in the fourth and once in the fifth to take a 5-1 lead.
T.J. Ellis and Cody Kayrouz hit back-to-back home runs in the fourth to give Jeff the lead for good. Later in the inning, Adam Crawford walked and scored on an RBI double by Ben Harbeson.
In the fifth, Harbeson scored on an RBI single by Conner Christopher.
Auburn scored three times in the fourth, but Christopher came in and got the final out in the fifth and set Auburn down 1-2-3 in the sixth.
Dylan Thomas pitched the first four innings, surrendering just one unearned run and striking out six.
“He pitched very well,” Jeremy Thomas said of his son.
Jackson Kruer, who had an RBI double to get Jeff on the board in the first, went 2-for-3. Christopher had a pair of runs batted in and five different Jeff players scored a run.
On Tuesday, Jeff led 7-6 in the bottom of the sixth inning before a Seymour solo home run sent the game into extra innings. Jeff had six errors, including five dropped third strikes, to aid Seymour’s cause.
Harbeson went 3-for-4 with an RBI. He also pitched two scorless innings and struck out four. Jared Wells went 2-for-3 with two driven in and Cody Short was 2-for-3 and scored a run. Jeff had 11 hits to four for Auburn.
• New Albany will play Highland: Highland beat Bedford 16-5 in four innings to advance to tonight’s 7 p.m. state championship game against New Albany.
“We’ve only seen [Highland] a couple of times, but they’re a good ball club,” New Albany manager Josh Bivens said. “We’ll have to do what we’ve done all year long and we’ll be all right.”
New Albany is 4-0 in the tournament. Highland is 4-1 with its only loss coming 5-4 against Bedford earlier in the double-elimination tournament.