NEW ALBANY — Lights! Camera! Silver Creek!
On the heels of their first district title in 25 years, followed by their first-ever state title, the Silver Creek 12U All-Stars begin play in the Great Lakes Regional on Sunday morning at the Grand Park Sports Complex in Westfield. The first seven games of the tourney will be broadcast on ESPN+. The semifinals and final will be televised on ESPN. The winner of the championship game advances to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
“Obviously it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with all my friends on this beautiful team, in this great park that we’re going up to,” first baseman Karson Cook said earlier this week after practice at the Silver Street Park indoor facility in New Albany. “And I hope we kick butt.”
Silver Creek will face Ohio state champion West Side at 10 a.m. Sunday in the first game of the regional.
“They’re really focused,” Silver Creek manager Damon Lewis said. “I think we’ve been off awhile since state and I think they’re kind of tired of practicing, they’re ready to go out and play another team again. We’re really looking forward to getting out on the field Sunday and seeing what we’ve got.”
It's been quite a few weeks for Silver Creek.
After suffering a lopsided loss to New Albany in pool play of the District 5 Tournament, Silver Creek bounced back to beat the five-time reigning champs 7-2 in the district final.
“Everyone doubted us when we were going into the [District 5] tournament when we lost that first game to New Albany,” Cook said. “But we just started getting better and better, just playing baseball every single day. ... Then, we beat’em and got past [districts]. Then, when we got to state — oh — it was a whole ‘nother ball game.”
Silver Creek lost its opening game in Greenwood 2-0 to Brownsburg in dramatic fashion — on a walk-off home run. It hasn’t lost since then, though.
Silver Creek outlasted Forest Park 2-1 in the state semifinals on the strength of pitching ace Preston Burton’s 16-strikeout performance, then beat Brownsburg 6-0 in the title tilt behind Spencer Durham’s complete-game, two-hit shutout.
Now it’s on to the Great Lakes Regional, where Lewis said the biggest key will be: “Pitch counts, pitch counts, pitch counts.”
“We’re going to have to go deep into our rotation,” he added. “Every team is going to have two or three guys that can really, really throw it. Also, I really hope we get some runs up on the board early. We play our best baseball when we’re putting pressure on the defense by putting the ball in play. Not necessarily hitting the ball out of the park, but just putting it in play and using our speed and our athleticism to put pressure on them, make them make plays.”
Burton and Durham lead the Silver Creek pitching staff. This summer Burton is 3-0 on the mound with a 0.36 earned-run average. In 16 2/3 innings pitched the right-hander has allowed only three hits and one unearned run while striking out 47.
“Preston Burton, he’s a big [key],” center fielder Jackson Lewis, the coach’s son, said. “He’s probably our best hitter, our best pitcher too. He’s a good infielder [at third base]. And he gets the team pumped up. He’s like the team leader. He gets us ready before games.”
Durham, a fellow righty, has been almost equally impressive on the mound. He sports a 2-1 record with a 1.06 ERA. In 11 1/3 innings pitched he has allowed just two earned runs on eight hits while striking out 11.
Damon Lewis may also use Cullen Garloch (2-0), the Kernen twins — Bryce (1-0) and Preston (1-0) — and Ross Jackson (0-1).
Burton also leads Silver Creek at the plate, hitting a whopping .552 with four home runs and 17 RBIs. Jackson is second on the squad with a .345 batting average while reserve Evan Trestor is hitting .333 with a .600 on-base percentage and .933 OPS. Jackson Lewis isn’t far behind at .318 and Preston Kernen is batting .308 with a .973 OPS.
“I think the key to us winning is we have to stay focused,” Cook said.
“We have to stay in the game,” Jackson Lewis added. “Once they score a few runs a lot of kids will put their head down and pout, but we can’t do that here at regionals. We’re here to win, so we can’t do that.”
Even though there will be a few more distractions (i.e. bigger crowds and TV cameras) at Westfield.
“It’s kind of nerve-racking thinking that you’re playing in front of all those people,” Cook said. “But I think we’ll just get in a groove eventually and then we’ll just forget about it and shut it out.”
“That’ll be fun for the guys,” Damon Lewis added. “We’ve been watching the HYR team playing [on ESPN+] in the Intermediate World Series, so that’s been a real cool experience to watch them. I think at first it’ll be a little bit nerve-racking for them, but I think they’ll settle down early. I think they’ll be alright.”
With pitching at a premium next week, Lewis said he isn’t sure who he’ll start in Sunday’s opener.
“We might go with Spencer first. He’s itching to get back out there after that big game in the [state] championship. We’ll see. We may throw four or five guys that first game,” he said.
If Silver Creek wins Sunday it will play Kentucky state champion Bowling Green Eastern, which produced the Great Lakes champion in 2015 and ‘16, at 10 a.m. Monday morning. If Silver Creek loses its first game it will play at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Regardless of the outcome, though, it’s been an unforgettable summer for Silver Creek.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Damon Lewis said. “I tell everybody now, right now it’s extra baseball. We’re not going up there just happy to be there, though. We fully intend to play our best baseball and win it. We’ll give it all we’ve got.”