They're not in Kansas anymore, and they're following the yellow brick road. They don't care if Oz is somewhere over the rainbow, because there's no place like home on the diamond.
Columbia County Stars baseball players A.J. Thibodeau, Travis Ward, Tyler Barden, Patrick Gamblin and Jeffery Rice all displayed heart, courage and brains during the recently completed season.
The Stars capped their third year this July with a ninth-place finish at the United States Specialty Sports Association 12-and-under World Series in Hutchinson, Kan.
That strong showing in the 74-team event gave the Stars a final record of 49-14, but for coach Billy Gamblin, one thing about his top five hitters stands out.
"Their overall dedication to the game," Coach Gamblin says. "They love baseball."
The Stars began play last August, and other than a short winter break, the travel team competed in tournaments through July. With the middle-school baseball season thrown in, plus practices two or three times a week, the stamina and concentration of these 12-year-olds was tested.
The five top hitters for the Columbia County Stars are: A. J. Thibodeau (clockwise from top left) Tyler Barden, Patrick Gamblin, Travis Ward and Jeffery Rice.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
But they stepped up to the plate every time, with no complaints.
"Sometimes I'm ready to go, but after a couple of games in the hot weather, I get really tired," Ward said. "But I keep on playing."
The steady diet of baseball has reaped results. "We're a whole lot better because of all the practice, and from playing in all those tournaments," Barden said.
On offense, Ward (.404 batting average), Rice (.366 with four home runs and nine triples), Gamblin (.431 average with 15 doubles), Barden (.379 with 15 doubles) and Thibodeau (.418 with 18 doubles and four home runs) were the Stars' version of Murderer's Row.
Defensively, the five Stars rated five stars with their wizardry: Thibodeau played pitcher, right field and shortstop; Gamblin was a first baseman and pitcher; Ward manned center, short and third; Barden shored up the catcher, pitcher and third-base slots; and, Rice anchored second base.
On the mound, Thibodeau posted a 14-2 record and stole the show by tossing the only no-hitter in last month's USSSA World Series. "I'm always going to have the memories of pitching a no-hitter at the World Series," he said.
Gamblin, meanwhile, finished with a 13-2 pitching record, despite a premature exit from the hill just three batters into the World Series.
"I felt a little tingle in my arm, so I couldn't pitch," Gamblin said. "All I could do was hit."
As it turned out, all of the Columbia County Stars were a hit during the trip to Kansas. "A few of the other passengers on the plane came to watch our games," Rice said. "They thought we were really good."
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