ANDERSON, Ind. — Nearly a year ago, Seth Kelley was just one of many parents in Portland, Ore., watching his daughter compete in the Little League Major Softball World Series.
He watched from the stands as his daughter, Emma, and her teammates on the Riverfield Major Softball All-Star team took the Indiana State title before making their way through the Central Region Tournament, clinching a berth to Portland along with several teams from all around the world.
Today, as Riverfield begins its quest to claim another Indiana state title, Seth will have a much different vantage point. He will feel even more pressure when players other than her daughter go to the plate.
This post-season tournament run, he isn’t just Emma’s father; he’s her team’s manager.
Today, Riverfield will face the District 6 winner from South Bend at 2 p.m. in Lebanon. They will play three more games before Sunday in pool play, and the top four teams will advance to two semi-finals games played Tuesday at 2 p.m. with a championship game at 5 p.m.
Riverfield’s manager, along with Emma, Rachael Duncan, Kalin Hubble and Myrcle Settles all had the opportunity to experience the atmosphere and the pressure in Portland last year, where the team finished fourth.
Seth said that last year’s team had some girls who displayed some remarkable leadership and helped launch Riverfield past the state and regional levels. Yet, one thing this season’s squad has that last year’s didn’t is experience at the highest level to go along with a core of 10 girls who have been playing together on travel teams since they were seven or eight years old.
“It’s huge,” Riverfield’s manager said. “It’s probably the difference between winning state championships and not. Teams we’ll face in the state, and if we happen to get past the state tournament and get farther into the post season, every team has that group of girls who have been playing together for a long time.”
Yet, with an experienced group with its sights set on a very high goal, Kelley said there’s always a chance for an upset. Riverfield won the District 6 Tournament back on June 5, taking down Rush County to move onto state.
During the layoff, Kelley has continued holding practices five days a week, but he said he’s been focusing just as much on what his players are thinking between their ears as what they can do on the diamond.
“That first game will be the test on where they are mentally,” Kelley said. “We talk to them every day about being prepared and getting rested and doing your best to stay focused on the field, but sometimes when you have a break or we’ve won so easily in the district, you can have a letdown.
“You never know till they show up what team you’ve got and how well you’ve prepared until you get there.”
On paper, Kelley said he thinks this year’s team can match up head-to-toe with the squad that made it all the way to Portland. At this level, though, he said any team at the state-level can hit and pitch, and he thinks Riverfield has made great strides in their defense around the diamond – the key difference between a good and great team in the post season, Kelley said.
But he added that honed skills and the right mindset can only get teams so far.
“I think last year was just a magical team,” Kelley said. “I don’t want to downplay this team, because I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think we could go that far too, but it’s a little bit of luck and skill.”
Kelley said his message to his girls over the past month has been the same old cliché, “One game at a time,” but he also admitted after such an impressive season just a year ago, the bar has been raised. The stakes to make it back to Portland are even higher.
“I know the four girls that were there last year want to go back,” Kelley said. “It’s unbelievable what Little League does at that level. It’s really the pinnacle of youth sports, of youth softball.
“For me as the manager, it’s a lot of pressure. You have to satisfy a group of parents and children not only on the field, but you have to make sure everybody understands the same goal, and that is you have to win the state tournament.”
And because of last year’s success, Kelley also admitted that anything short of another trip to Portland in August for the World Series would be a bit of a letdown, but for now, all he wants his girls thinking about is doing their job in Lebanon.
“I’m sure if we lose at the state tournament or even get to the regionals and lose, it’ll be a huge disappointment, but we’ve already accomplished a lot,” Kelley said. “We’ve got to keep our focus in that we’ve got to play one game at a time, and you can’t go anywhere unless you win the state championship.”