Little League Softball: Three regionals start today at Community Park

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 22, 2016

SALISBURY — Ally Young was nervous, but she stepped in front of a microphone and calmly asked the blessing.
Then a well-organized throng — 600 players, coaches, umpires, parents and Rowan Little League Softball administrators — lined up at West End Plaza for the meal that kicked off three Southeast Regional tournaments.
Play starts today at Salisbury Community Park where Junior (14U), Senior (16U) and Big League (18U) clubs will determine who will represent the Southeast region of the USA in World Series events.
Five states have teams in the Junior tournament, with six vying for the Senior title, and just four battling for the crown in the older age division. If the weather stays dry, champs will be crowned on Sunday.
Young, a tall, left-handed first baseman, will be competing for the only local team involved — the Rowan Little League Juniors. They’ll play the Florida champs at 12:30 p.m.
Ally’s father Scott is well known to Rowan County sports fans. He was the head coach of the West Rowan High football team for 17 seasons and three 3A state championships.
Not long ago, three Youngs were hospitalized at the same time. Ally for appendicitis, her big brother Bryant for dehydration, and Scott for a long-awaited heart transplant.
Ally and Bryant have recovered. Scott is on the mend.
“My dad is doing really well,” Ally said. “He’s using a walker to get around, but he gets better every day.”
Scott was hired to be the head coach of the Independence High football team in Charlotte this fall. The plan is for Bryant, a football quarterback, and Ally, who is good at a lot of things, to commute to Charlotte with him. Ally already is doing workouts with the Independence volleyball team, and this softball regional may be her last time in a Rowan uniform.
Ally has famous teammates. Pitcher Kali Morton and catcher Caitlin Mann have moved up to the Junior team. The Mooresville duo formed the battery for the Rowan Little League 12-under team that won the World Series last summer and changed girls softball forever locally. Morton and Mann have been a team since they were 7 years old, forming a bond long ago when they were both cut from a team at the same time and then found a new one together.
Now they’re getting ready to be high school freshmen. That’s a lot of years of experience.
Coaching the Rowan Junior team is Johnny Meadows, who has been around a lot of baseball and softball diamonds. His players come mostly from Mooresville. But there also players such as outfielder Ezra Nance from the western end of Rowan County.
“I can play left field, center field or right field,” Nance said cheerfully. She’s a rising freshman at West Rowan High.
The path Meadows’ team traveled to get here is highly unusual. They haven’t played a game yet as a team. They are 0-0. They were unopposed district champions and they were unopposed state champions.
The girls played 12 games in a two-team league during the regular season, because you have to have a league. Then they put the all-stars from those two teams together into a 14-girl squad.
This is only the second year that Rowan has fielded a team in this age group. Rowan finished third in the regional in its debut last season. Florida won the regional last year — and everything else.
“The reason we don’t have Little League softball teams that are 13-14 is those are important years for travel ball and to start being recruited,” Meadows said. “We had to be real flexible and work with the travel ball coaches or we wouldn’t be able to field a team in this age group.”
Basically, these girls played Little League games during the week and with their travel teams on weekends.
While it may sound like Rowan is at a serious disadvantage in the regional, that won’t necessarily be the case. Morton and Mann have been through many pressure-packed games on a very big stage, and softball is dominated by the girl in the circle — and the girl catching her.
“She’s the same Kali,” Meadows said. “Still humble. Still working. Still getting better.”
Morton doesn’t sound worried about taking the field against state champions who have battled to get to this point.
“This team is all on the same page,” Morton said. “We’ve been practicing a lot, going over the signals, going over the plays. It’s all about preparation and teamwork.”
Mann agreed.
“We’re all friends on and off the field,” Mann said. “It won’t be hard for us to jell as a team.”
Rowan Little League president Dan Wales said District II assistant district administrator Mike Hirschman, from Winston-Salem, has ably handled late schedule adjustments.
Wales said the West Virginia team dropped out of Junior regional late, but that schedule adjustment might work out OK. It put Rowan Little League in a 12:30 p.m. first-round game today against the Florida champs instead of Rowan playing in an 11 a.m. game.
“If I said everything has gone smoothly, I’d be lying, but we’ve gotten it done,” Wales said. “The city has put in a lot of labor. The fields are beautiful. They couldn’t look much better. And there’s new everything — from the flagpoles to the backstops.”
Wales was working to set up the West End Plaza all day. He started at 7 a.m. The teams started arriving at 7 p.m., wearing their team colors and T-shirts with catchy slogans such as “12 girls, 3 coaches, 1 goal.”
Rowan Little League softball teams have won state championships this year in the 7-8, 9-10 and 11-12 age groups (nine veterans from the World Series squad are on that team) to go along with the Junior’s team’s uncontested state title.
There’s hope among people like Meadows and Wales that Rowan can start fielding teams in the older age groups down the road. That would be logical, especially if Rowan is going to continue to host the Senior League and Big League regionals.
“Once you get it started, you can do it, but the hard part is getting it started,” Meadows said. “I think this group we’ve got now in the 13-14s will be the ones to get us started in the older divisions. We’ve just got to keep them together.”
Sara Thompson, the national director of softball development for Little League, was at Thursday’s banquet, taking a look at a city that is becoming a hub of girls softball.
The next most important people at the banquet were members of the three-man regional umpiring staff, headed by Marshall Casey, the Southeastern Region Umpire-In-Chief.
Casey, who lives in Spartanburg, S.C., was elated that the regional moved from Fort Myers, Fla., to Salisbury.
“It meant driving 2 1/2 hours instead of 10 1//2,” Casey said with a laugh.
Twenty volunteer umpires, all very experienced, will be working the three tournaments. Casey and his staff have worked in the Little League mecca of Williamsport, and they’ll be evaluating regional umpires, making judgments on who’s ready to move up to the national level.
Rowan has become the site of many district and state tournaments, but taking on three regionals at once is a massive undertaking. Wales believes the city, the county and Rowan Little League is ready for it and could become an annual host.
The action begins at 11 a.m. today. Washington is the North Carolina team in the Senior division, while Morganton is representing North Carolina in the Big League tournament.
A schedule is in Scoreboard.