FAIRMONT — The District 5 little league championship game was like a boxing match.
When Fairmont’s 9-11 Little League team would get a hit in, the West Mon team would strike right back with a good play. But Fairmont wasn’t about to give up without a fight.
“Because we had beat Bridgeport that put us in the championship round against West Mon, who had beat everyone else they had played pretty easily,” said Jimmy Bledsoe, the manager of the Fairmont team. “At that point, we knew going in it was going to be a really hard task. We knew defense was going to be the key to everything to putting the ball in play.”
Defense was important to the team’s game, and it ended up being three “way above outstanding” defensive plays from Brody Bledsoe and Case Linn that ended the game. With the win on Saturday, the team now heads to the eight-team state tournament in Shinnston scheduled from July 13-20.
“In this game, West Mon had hit one home run and multiple balls deep into the outfield,” Jimmy said. “When I say their power was a concern, it was a huge concern. They hit the ball so hard that we knew we could not let singles turn into doubles. So we had to hold runners, and our kids are just a group of gritty kids. They’re not an overly talented bunch, but they played super gritty. And that’s what got us to where we’re at.”
Last year, Fairmont had fallen to both Bridgeport and West Mon, and the team was eliminated from the tournament. When that happened, when it realized how much better it would have to become to compete at these high level, the team sat down and discussed what it needed to do to get there. The buzz words that would guide the 2019 season were “commitment” and “grind”, and Bledsoe believed if the team would commit to becoming a tighter, grittier team, the players would accomplish the goal of getting the district title.
“Our goal last June, we talked about what our goal was for June 2019: to compete at a high level and win districts,” Bledsoe said. “We’ve done that. Now we’ve set another goal, and that’s to compete at the state level.”
Bledsoe, who is the CEO of a large construction company, has managed this group of 11-year-olds for the past four years. He said the journey to the state tournament has been going on all that time, and this is the furthest the group has gotten.
Fairmont made it through the double-elimination district tournament undefeated. If they had lost, they would have gone into the consolation bracket that would have decided the runner-up. The team beat Bridgeport 10-0 in four innings and then had to face West Mon — who had been easily defeating its opponents — in the title game.
“This is a huge accomplishment for our group, and it just shows them with what they’ve become from a commitment and a family to the gritty level that you can play with any opponent,” Bledsoe said.
The team practiced between five and six days per week for about two hours, starting slowly and ramping up the intensity. Bledsoe said the goal of the practices has been to put the players in tough situations that might crop up in games which would hopefully minimize the panic they would feel in the moment.
And, after four years of coaching relatively the same athletes, Bledsoe said there’s a trust between him and the athletes and said they know if he asks them to do something, they know it’s in their best interest and are more than willing to learn the things they don’t know and get better at things they need to get better at.
But Bledsoe said he learns from them, too.
“They teach me every day more than I can teach them, sometimes,” Bledsoe said. “They’ve taught me it doesn’t matter what anybody says, anything can be accomplished through hard work.”
Going into the state tournament, Bledsoe is going to have to manage the mental games of 11-year-old baseball players, although Bledsoe said it was hard to believe players that age can mentally withstand the ups and downs of baseball. Bledsoe said the team is going to have to focus and concentrate on minimizing and managing any mistakes it might make.
“We’ve already set a motto: Treat it like a whiffle ball game,” Bledsoe said. “You go out and you play carefree, smart baseball. We always say treat it like a whiffle ball game, because in a whiffle ball game you don’t care about strikes, balls, you just get up there to hit. If someone hits the ball to you when you’re playing out back in the yard, you do everything you can do to get the baseball. Treat it like a whiffle ball game. Whiffle ball mentality, trust your ability, and grind it out.”
At the end of the day, Bledsoe’s goal is to help build better young men, and he uses baseball as a tool. When he looked across the field on Saturday and saw the kids overwhelmed by the emotion of accomplishing a goal they had set for themselves this time last year, that — to him — is why he coaches.
“We talk about it: ‘Win every inning. Win every inning,’” Bledsoe said. “They’re not the most athletic group, but they’re a family and they’re gritty. They’ll grind, they’re not afraid to get dirty, they’ll die for baseball.”