ANDERSON — The Riverfield All-Stars and manager Seth Kelley have been down this road before.
After losing the team’s first game in the state tournament earlier this month, Riverfield ran the table en route to back-to-back state titles and another shot at the Central Region championship and a trip to the Little League Softball World Series.
A five-run lead wasn’t enough late in the team’s opening pool play game in the regional tournament against Appleton, Wis., on Saturday, losing 6-5 in extra innings.
Kelley’s team bounced back from the setback with a definitive 8-0 rout of Webb City, Mo., on Sunday.
Today, Riverfield faces an undefeated team from North Ottowa, Mich., that has outscored its opponents by 20 combined runs in its first two victories.
A win today wouldn’t secure Riverfield a spot in the semifinals to be played Thursday. A loss, though, wouldn’t take a berth in the semis out of Riverfield’s hands.
Kelley said he hasn’t quite communicated the gravity of this afternoon’s game against North Ottowa because he’s seen how Riverfield has performed in the past under loads of pressure. In the first round of state, his team lost 9-7 to South Bend Southeast, a game he said Riverfield shouldn’t have struggled to win.
“I don’t want to put a bunch of pressure on them, unneeded pressure, and then they go into the game and feel tight and don’t play the game they can play,” Kelley said. “I don’t think Michigan is that much better than us, and I don’t think we’re that much better than them.
“You’ve got to play like it’s just another game, and that’s hard to do, but that’s what you’ve got to tell them.”
The biggest threat North Ottowa poses, according to Kelley, is the team’s strength from the mound. The Michigan team’s star pitcher, Leah Vaughan, struck out 12 batters Sunday in a 10-3 win against Freeport, Ill. After her team fell behind early 2-0, Vaughan proved to be the backbone for North Ottowa, giving her teammates time to get their bats going before an eight-run fourth inning put the game out of reach.
Kelley said his girls have to swing aggressively in the batter’s box against Vaughan and try to stay ahead in the count to keep North Ottowa’s pitcher on her toes. If Riverfield can do that, Kelley thinks his team has more than a fighting chance.
“Anybody can be rattled if you start getting to them and put the bat on it,” he said. “You can’t sit up there and let her throw strikes without swinging your bat. When you get down in the count, and she’s got control of the count, then she can throw pitches she wants. She doesn’t have to throw strikes, and then you start chasing.
“If we’re aggressive and put our bats on it early, that’ll help us get to her a bit and also help us try to control her rather than her control us with the count.”
Through three days of the tournament, Riverfield can still control its own destiny toward a spot in the semis with wins against North Ottowa and Freeport to close out pool play.
A loss today would mean Kelley’s team would have to take down Freeport on Wednesday, then root for North Ottowa to beat Appleton later in the day – assuming the Wisconsin team beats an 0-3 Webb City team today – and then pull out a tiebreaker against Freeport and Appleton.
Saturday’s late-game loss made things a bit more complicated for Kelley’s squad to make it back to the World Series in Portland, Ore., for the second year in a row, but he said his girls have conquered adversity before this season, and he has no reason to believe they won’t do it again.
“When things aren’t that comfortable, that’s when you’ve really got to find a way inside of you to focus and concentrate even more,” Kelley said. “I’m hoping they’re just going to come out (today) like it’s just another game and they’re ready to go.”
Central Region Schedule at Ruben F. Glick Little League Central Region Headquarters Indianapolis Today: Riverfield vs. North Ottowa, Mich., 1:30 p.m. Wednesday: Riverfield vs. Freeport, Ill., 11 a.m. Thursday: Semifinals, 11 a.m. / Championship 3 p.m.