Twice last week, fire trucks, sheriff’s cruisers, and police cars all had to be called out in an urgent summons to lend critically important help to young people in need.
Turned out there weren’t any fires, except those in the bellies of about two dozen county ballplayers.
No crimes were committed either, unless you count stealing bases and, as one member of the AA All Stars, Karcen Poloronis put it, “we snatched that cookie totally.”
There was some vandalism though, since these young people had broken records and shattered expectations.
The one overriding need this past week was to honor, with a cross-county caravan of flashing lights and blaring sirens, the accomplishments of two of the county’s all-star teams, the youngest boys and the oldest girls, both of whom had traveled to state tourneys and come home with the title of Florida’s best.
On Wednesday, July 5, the AA Dixie Youth All-Stars, for boys ages 7 and 8, were treated to a hero’s welcome, after they won nine out of 10 games, in a four-day stretch in the blistering heat of Sebring’s Max Long Recreational Complex, to become the first boys team in any division to win a state title from Franklin County.
Two of the days saw the boys playing three consecutive games each day. They won all six.
Tony Smith, director of Florida Dixie Youth League, said Franklin County led the tourney in runs scored and allowed the fewest runs.
A key reason for that defensive success was a tough infield, anchored by second baseman Nolan Alford and shortstop Karcen Poloronis, who managed to secure several outs at crucial times in big games., stopping the momentum of opponents just when they were about to get going.
While there are no pitchers, since a pitching machine is used to hurl five baseballs down the pike, or more if they keep fouling them off, the boy behind the plate is crucial and catcher Jaxson Odom caught all the games in the South Florida heat with the exception of a few innings.
“The position of catcher at this age group is critical. If you don’t have a catcher with a strong arm, teams will run the bases all day long causing real headaches for your defense,” said assistant coach Lloyd Alford. “Luckily we had the best one in the park.”
Alford, who together with Ronnie Joseph and Tyler Poloronis assists coach Willie McNair III, said the gauntlet of the batting order, Chason Martina, Bennett McNair, Dre’Kylan North, Adyn Carter and Jordan Shiver, were especially challenging for other teams.
“The five of them did serious damage, hitting gap shots for extra bases all tourney long,” he said. “Leadoff hitter Sadiq Jones was consistent as the spark plug to our offense. His combination of speed and power was a threat all tourney long.”
While most all the boys were age 7 or 8, the lone exception was 6-year-old Kobe Joseph, who was selected for the all-stars in large part to his speed.
“He didn’t disappoint. Batting last for the entirety of the tournament, he acted as another leadoff, setting the tone for the offense,” said Alford. “He consistently rose to the challenge each and every game despite being two years younger than most of his peers.”
Another speedster was third baseman Kayden Drake, who was MVP in the team’s opening win against Holmes County, and who took first place in the tourney’s speed competition, with a time of 13:42 to run the bases.
Left fielder Rylan Woods rounded out the roster, one of the six players from around the league selected to join the six from the Wolfpack, which had won the regular seasons.
Pam Jones, who took in the tourney together with her mom Patricia Jones, said the Wolfpack had started out in AA ball losing all of its games, she said 19 straight losses, but turned their fortunes around this past season.
“Most of us have been together four years,” she said. “They worked hard and got better.”
McNair’s wife Nicole McNair said the bonding among the team parents was incredible.
“I think we have the best team parents ever, no arguing whatsoever,” she said. “I’ve missed them. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I didn’t expect this; I feel super close to all of them.”
Alford also stressed the overwhelming support of parents and fans on this trip. ”When you take a dozen 7 and 8-year-old kids seven hours away for five days of baseball, it can be a logistical miracle,” he said. “From the scrubbing of dirty baseball pants that was handled nightly to finding an economical way to feed our team in a timely manner, they were up for the challenge.”
For what lay at the core of the etam’s success, he reserved that honor for his wife Courtney, and the three other coaches’ wives, Nicole McNair, Lindsey Poloronis and Paige Moses.
“They did countless Gatorade and water runs and really anything that the team needed,” Alford said. “They handled lodging reservations, fundraising and distribution, pizza deliveries, injuries and hurt feelings, doing all of this flawlessly the entire trip.”
Belles headed to Worlds
The Franklin County Belles, ages 13-15, are headed to the Dixie Softball World Series to be held in Sumnter, South Carolina after advancing through the state tournament this past weekend in Bristol. The team, coached by Brock Johnson, Kim Johnson and Shawn Brannan, includes Melanie Collins, Alexus Johnson, Jaylin Charles, Sage Brannan, Leslie Escobar, Abby Johnson, Brooklyn O'Neal, Gracie Smith, Ariel Andrews, Destanie Proctor, Ava McAnally and Kylah Ross.
The Belles opened against longtime nemesis West Pasco, and suffered a heart breaking last inning 5-4 defeat.
“We committed a couple of costly errors that we normally don't have and they capitalized. And you can't make those mistakes against a good team like that," said Brock Johnson.
Brannan pitched three scoreless, no-hit innings, striking out six. Escobar humored in the fourth to give the team a 3-0 lead before West Pasco battled back to take the win.
With their backs up against the wall, every game was now an elimination game and the heart and determination of these girls would prove their worth.
The next day they easily handled Holmes County and won 13-3 by the mercy-rule in five innings. "We came out hot, I think we had maybe five or six doubles the first inning, and that pretty much took the wind out of Holmes' sails,” said Johnson.
Charles, Abby Johnson and Alexus Johnson combined for the win on the mound, giving up only two hits. Collins was 2 for 2 at the plate, Alexus Johnson 3 for 3, and Brannan tallied a pair of hits.
Franklin County took the third game against neighboring Liberty County 19-6, once again winning by the mercy-rule. The team pounded out 21 hits in five innings of ball. "
“We are just taking it one pitch at a time, and we're swinging at better pitches now, compared to our first game when we didn't make West Pasco work very hard to get us out," said Johnson.
On Sunday the young ladies faced Belleview, the tourney’s only remaining undefeated team. “I watched Belleview and knew they could really swing the bat but probably were behind us in pitching a little bit," said Johnson.
Behind in pitching they were as Brannan and Alexus Johnson combined to allow just two runs in five innings as Franklin walked away handily with a 19-2 victory. Offensively the team was led by Collins, Alexus Johnson, Brannan and Andrews each 2 for 3 and Kylah Ross 2 for 2.
With this win, Franklin and Belleview had played the same number of games, and rules called for them to draw for the bye and go directly to the championship. Franklin County drew the bye, and they advanced to the winner-take-all championship game the following day versus the winner of Belleview and West Pasco.
Championship Monday said a battle once again of the Franklin Belles versus West Pasco, who beat Belleview 7-6 to advance.
For the second time in history, Franklin County will have a Belles team headed to the Dixie Softball World Series as they won the state barnburner 19-12.
"West Pasco has always been a well coached team, they barrel up on the ball really good which makes you have to work in the field," said Johnson.
Brannan started on the mound, pitching the first four innings before giving way to Charles to finish the game. "Sage was pitching really well, but I could see that she was getting tired and losing a little velocity, it was just so hot today and I trusted Jay to finish the game,” said Johnson. “It’s a team game, always will be.”
The young ladies from Franklin were led at the plate by Melanie Collins 3-3, Escobar, McAnally and Abby Johnson each 2 for 3, and Brooklyn O'Neal 2 for 2.
The girls travel later this month to the Dixie Softball World Series, and will be doing a few fundraisers to help with the cost. If you would like to donate please contact Brock Johnson (370-6127), Kim Johnson (653-5518) or Shawn Brannan (408-4641). The girls would also like to think everyone who has supported them up to this point and they promise not to let you down.