The East Tennessee Crusaders were on a mission last week at the USSSA 12-U Elite World Series in Orlando.
Despite losing two of their pitchers shortly prior to the tournament, the Crusaders rallied to finish tied for fifth in a field featuring many of the nation’s premier 11- and 12-year-old baseball players.
It was an improbable run, especially after Christian Martin, a 6-foot-2 left-hander from Johnson City, developed an ailing arm, and Riley Hobbs (Kingsport) broke his thumb playing around in the house with friends. And another pitcher, Tanner Barrs (shoulder), was limited to four innings in Florida.
“Really we were down three pitchers and our defense actually isn’t that strong,” Crusaders manager Mark Adcox said. “It was like we were going to Florida to play the top teams in the country on crutches.”
Still, the Crusaders took the fields at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex and beat teams with huge budgets and players from across the country, including two of the most touted tournament favorites.
Most impressive, the Crusaders won three games in an eight-hour span on Wednesday, shrugging off the heat and the do-or-die tension of the losers’ bracket.
They beat the Granger Cubs (Illinois) 3-2 in an 8 a.m. game thanks to a complete-game victory from Aaron Rose (Bristol, Va.). Then, in a game that began at noon, the Crusaders recorded what seemed to be the biggest upset when they beat Miami’s MVP Elite, 7-5.
MVP Elite spares no expense, has been known to fly players in for tournaments and was ranked No. 2 in the country, according to Adcox. But pitchers Matthew Levi (Johnson City) and Travis Hambrick (Banner Elk, North Carolina) combined to bounce the Elite from the tournament, much to the delight of many other teams. Levi threw 41 pitches in four innings and left leading 4-2, Adcox said.
That was followed by an extra-inning victory against Team Florida, which had beaten the Crusaders 9-1 in the championship of a tournament in Richmond, Virginia earlier this season.
“Team Florida players came up to our dugout and said, ‘You guys beat MVP?’And we were like, ‘Yes sir,’” Adcox said. “We had played them in Richmond … and they beat us something like, 10-1. So one of their players said, ‘We got this.’”
But Martin hit a long two-run home run and Gavin Austin (Bristol, Virginia) pitched six strong innings to help set the stage for a game-winning hit in the seventh from Nick Copenhaver (Johnson City). Preston Steele (Abingdon, Virginia) pitched the seventh for the save, striking out Team Florida’s leadoff batter with a curveball to end it.
The win earned the Crusaders another shot at the Memphis Tigers on Thursday at 10 a.m. But the Tigers, a team Adcox said has players from Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas and had put the Crusaders in the losers’ bracket with a 14-1 victory on Tuesday, eliminated the East Tennesseans with an 8-1 defeat.
The Crusaders were essentially out of pitching and perhaps lacking energy after the taxing tripleheader the day before. Still, Adcox said, it was a 1-1 game in the fourth inning.
Resilience was evident before the Crusaders got out of pool play. They began the tournament with a 3-1 loss to East Atlanta Baseball and then trailed Florida Select 9-6 in the bottom of the sixth in their second game.
But they scored four runs without making an out in their final at-bat to end pool play at 1-1, and then opened the double-elimination bracket by beating the Minnesota Braves, 6-3. Levi (one hit in four innings) and Hambrick (two innings) also pitched that one.
This was the debut season for the 12-U Crusaders. They went 57-17, and Levi was a powerful force.
Crusaders founder Adam Cross, who played in the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres organizations and coached at Walters State, said Levi reminds him of a young Will Craig. Craig, a Science Hill alum, led Wake Forest in home runs as a freshman this past season. Levi, who also catches, led the 12-under Johnson City American Little League in home runs as a 9-year-old.
“I want to say our team hit 53 home runs this year, and Levi hit 28 of them,” Adcox said. “And he just turned 12 May the 1st. He could still be playing 11-and-under. … He hit one ball this year in Chattanooga – a guy threw a fastball and left it up – and the fences were 300 and he hit it 330.
“And that was before he was 12 years old. And it was stepped off by the other team’s coach. I’ve been coaching 12 years and I’d never seen anything like it.”
Adcox credits hitting coach Stan Barrs for improving the Crusaders, which include Landon Slemp (Johnson City), Keylan Newton (Greeneville), Evan Carter (Elizabethton), Ben Jones (Johnson City), Payton Stanley (Kingsport) and Nate Watson (Greeneville). They punched a ticket to Orlando with a tournament title in Cincinnati.
“We’d played in Charlotte, Richmond and Kingsport,” Adcox said, “and the last shot was in Cincinnati, one of the hardest tournaments around. And those boys won that Super Major in Cincinnati. They were determined.”
The Disney trip won’t soon be forgotten. Many of the games were streamed live on the internet.
“There are, like, 25 baseball fields and it’s where the (Atlanta) Braves do Spring Training,” Adcox said. “They call teams’ names out as they walk up from center field to second base. … And there’s fireworks. Those kids really got a lot of memories.”comments powered by Disqus