COLUMBIA — Cole Evans glares at his coach in disbelief after a called strike. The coach, Greg Kesphol, is pitching to his team during batting practice. On the next pitch, Cole crushes a line drive into right center field that quickly disappears on the other side of the fence.
“Get that out of my house,” Cole tells his coach as he rounds the bases.
Head coach Greg Kespohl is the son of city councilman Gary Kespohl, who is Missouri's District 4 Little League administrator. Gary Kespohl has been involved with Daniel Boone Little League for 33 years, including coaching his son in the late 197os and early 1980s. Now, Greg Kespohl is coaching his son, Connor Kespohl, on the American All-Star team.
"I'm just tickled to death my grandson is getting to play in the regional," Gary Kespohl said.
Cole has hit two of his team’s six home runs in seven postseason games this summer. He plays for the Daniel Boone Little League American All-Stars.
The team is leaving for Indianapolis on Thursday for the Little League Midwest Regional Tournament, which begins on Saturday. The team will play four games to determine seeding. If they finish in the top four of the six teams, they will move on to a four-team, single elimination bracket, where their games will appear on ESPN2 or ESPN3.com. The winner of the tournament will move on to the Little League World Series starting Aug. 20 in Williamsport, Pa.
The players all watch ESPN, and getting a chance to play on national TV would be a dream come true for most of them.
“It’s a once in a lifetime deal. You can’t get better than that,” second baseman Reid Spencer said.
The team is made up of all-stars that played in the Daniel Boone Little League. Although not all the players had played together before taking a place on the all-star team, they all knew each other and what the team was capable of doing.
“When we met for our first practice there was a feeling of excitement because I think the kids themselves recognized the talent in one another,” Kespohl said. “I think they believed they could be very successful.”
The players all knew how good their teammates were, but they also knew how good the Daniel Boone Little League National All-Star team was. Each year, two 11- to 12-year-old all-star teams are created from Daniel Boone Little League. The all-stars are selected from a combination of votes from players and coaches. In order to advance to the state tournament, the American All-Stars had to beat the National All-Stars.
“It was very nerve racking to play in districts,” Kespohl said. “Many of their friends played on the other team. They were a very formidable team. They had very good pitching, good defense and good hitting. We were concerned. The kids were concerned about their ability to advance past that team.”
Despite their concerns, the American All-Stars beat the National All-Stars 5-0 and 10-1 in the district tournament. The team then went 4-0 in the state tournament, scoring at least nine runs in each game.
The American All-Stars are undefeated and have rolled through their first seven games, winning each by at least four runs. Even with all that success, Kespohl is not sure what to expect in the regional tournament.
“When you get to this level, these are kids that play the game almost year round," Kespohl said. “They’re in the cages in the winter. They play on fall ball teams. They use the offseason to get better. Everyone we’ll be seeing will be like us in that way. We expect to see teams that are better than we are. We’ll have to be able to compete and fight in order to win those games.”
From the beginning, the strength of the team has been offense. In addition to six home runs hit by four different players, the team has hit for an average of .344. But the defense, which went the first six games without an error, and the pitching staff have been good as well.
“(Assistant coach) Don Lafferty has really worked a lot with our pitchers,” Kespohl said. “I give him a ton of credit. He’s got those guys throwing the ball with a great deal of confidence. They’ve had a lot of success. I didn’t think we’d pitch badly, but I didn’t know that we’d pitch this well.”
Kespohl knows his team is going to have to continue to hit in order to be successful in Indianapolis, but he realizes there will come a time when they’ll need strong pitching.
“I still think we’ll hit just about anybody they put in front of us,” Kespohl said. “But pitching is the great equalizer. We’ll run up against somebody who’s got our number eventually.”
A potential problem with playing in a tournament of this magnitude is the number of distractions that come along with it, such as media obligations and the chance to play on TV. It’s something 11- and 12-year-old boys aren’t used to. Kespohl is beginning to realize that it’s impossible to keep the boys focused on baseball all the time. He’s only concerned with keeping them focused when they’re on the field, something he thinks won’t be a big problem.
“A lot of times when we get inside that fence and it’s game time, they’ll get focused because they have something invested in it, and they care about it,” Kespohl said.
Although the players are excited about playing on the big stage, they aren’t too worried about nerves getting the better of them.
“I just love playing baseball. I don’t really care who’s watching,” Reid said.
“Forget about the camera, forget that you’re on TV, just play ball,” shortstop Brett Bales said.
Kespohl is impressed with how his players have dealt with the extra attention so far.
“One minute they’re little kids and the next minute you look at them and you look at the way they play the game or the way they answer a question and you think, my God, the kid’s almost an adult.," he said. "They morph back and forth.”