NEW ALBANY — New Albany Little League has produced the last two 9-10-year-old Minor League Division state championships.
Although only a couple players and the coaching staff remain, New Albany expects to win its third straight title next Wednesday.
The 9-10 state finals will begin tonight at Jeff/GRC. New Albany will open play at 8 against New Castle.
“I think overall, we stack up better than the past two years,” said New Albany manager Josh Biven, who coached the past two 9-10 state championship teams. “I plan on going one game at a time, but I think we can win it.”
“We expect to win state and have fun doing it,” New Albany infielder Josh Castleman said.
“We have a great team and we can accomplish anything that we try for,” New Albany catcher Austin Oppel added.
Add in the “home-field” advantage, and New Albany has to be the favorite for a third consecutive crown.
Last year’s team had to go to Dyer Little League near Gary — about as far as you can travel and stay in Indiana — for the state tournament. This year, the New Albany All-Stars get to stay home, sleep in their own beds and play in front of a pro-New Albany crowd.
“I think the boys would love to stay in seven nights’ worth of hotels,” Biven said. “But the home crowd, I think, is going to be big. When we play Jeff, yes, it’s a big rivalry. But [the Jeff fans] we know are going to be there supporting us. They want District 5 to win just as much as we want 11-year-olds and 11- and 12-year-olds from Jeffersonville to win a state championship. I think [playing near home] is going to be nice. Hopefully at 8 o’clock [tonight], we’ll see a packed house.”
“We’ll probably have more of a home-field advantage,” Castleman said. “Probably more than the other teams, because they’re farther away.”
When entering a Little League state finals tournament, little is usually known about the other teams in the tournament, particularly at the 9-10 level.
However, New Albany’s first-round opponent, New Castle, has produced a ton of baseball success, including a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., a year ago.
“We got New Castle out of the gate,” Biven said. “The history’s there. They’ve beaten everyone like we did in district and hit the ball around, so it should be a very interesting game.”
This year, Little League has gone back to the double-elimination format. With its pitching depth, that may give New Albany an added advantage. Having to play New Castle to open the tournament is a concern because a loss could mean New Albany would have to play seven games in seven days to win the title.
“It’s a big game,” Biven said. “We don’t want to go out and lay a goose egg. It’s important to get off to a good start.”
With a win, New Albany would play either Auburn or North Posey, who meet at 5:30 tonight in the first round. If New Albany can win the first two games, then a 3 p.m. contest on Saturday, it would secure a spot in the state semifinals on Tuesday.
With a loss in any of those games, it could take up to four wins to get to the semis.
“The good news is if we win [the first three games], we get a couple days off,” Biven said. “If we lose, we have to play every day. We’d like to get through it and have a couple days’ rest for our pitchers.”
The two returning players from last year’s state championship team are Oppel and center fielder David Newbanks.
Oppel went 16-for-20 with a pair of home runs, six doubles, 16 RBIs and 14 runs scored in six District 5 contests. Newbanks batted .600 with six runs and six RBIs.
“Austin’s really, really stroking the ball,” Biven said. “[Oppel and Newbanks] played a lot last year in the state tournament, so I think they’ll be more relaxed. I think David and Austin can really lead us.”
The entire offense has been off the charts since district play began. In the six games, New Albany batted .583 as a team and produced 84 runs, including nine home runs.
“We’ve been hitting really well,” said Castleman, who is .625 with 14 baserunners driven home and a team-best four home runs in the district.
“I feel like we’ve been hitting the ball good,” Oppel said. “I think everybody’s hitting the ball well.”
As good as the hitting was in district play, New Albany’s pitching may have been even better. The staff gave up just two earned runs in six games and Ray Reisinger pitched a shutout in a 3-0 win over Jeff/GRC in the district championship game.
Biven said pitching will be the key to New Albany winning another title.
“We’re six or seven deep and we still have the one or two at the top that can get the job done in the semis and championship when needed,” Biven said of his pitching staff. “We might not have the dominant No. 1 [pitcher], but we have two No. 1s that are about equal.”
“Our pitching’s phenomenal,” Oppel said. “All we need to do is to throw strikes and that’s what we’ve been doing, and we have more than one kid that can pitch.”