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MOUNT WASHINGTON - A five-year baseball journey came to a glorious conclusion on July 17 when the Mount Washington Mud Cats won the USSSA AA Under-13 World Series in Columbus, Indiana.
Coached by Kevin Ezell and assisted by high school coaches Craig Sharpe, June Bug Rakes and Chris Stallings, the Mud Cats can trace their lineage back to the Under-8 Mount Washington All-Star team that won the Cal Ripkin District 2 title in 2006.
After that season Ezell and the team’s parents decided that this group could benefit from greater competition. While they continued to play in the Mount Washington Youth Baseball League, they also became the Mud Cats as they played in tournaments throughout the Midwest while also continuing to compete in Cal Ripkin competition, winning District titles every year through last summer as 12-year olds. As 10-year olds, the team finished as the East Kentucky State Tournament runners-up.
There is a big change between the 12- and 13-year old baseball circuits. At the same time, developing players start to focus on fewer sports. Last winter, Ezell and his merry band decided to put the Mud Cats together for one more season before the players splintered into basketball, football or strictly baseball.
The final push saw the team win the Baseball Brawl at Indiana University Southeast before they traveled to Jackson, Tennessee and won the Memorial Magic, qualifying them for the USSSA World Series.
(The World Series moniker is somewhat confusing. While the tournaments do include elite teams, USSSA World Series events are more regional tournaments. There is no advancement beyond the ‘regional’ World Series tournaments. The event in Columbus included teams from Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, New York and Wisconsin as well as Kentucky.)
At the 17-team event in Columbus, the Mud Cats opened pool play with a 12-9 victory over the Prairie Duchien Hawks from Wisconsin before dropping a 6-5 decision to the Springfield (OH.) Heat. That would turn out to be the only loss for the Mount Washington team as they started a new winning streak with a 3-2 win over Fury Baseball (IN.) before closing pool play with a 14-5 win over the Illinois Crush.
In the single elimination bracket, the Mud Cats started with a 8-0 victory over the Indiana White Sox before they avenged their only defeat with a 12-3 decision over the Springfield Heat. That put them into the semi-finals where they beat the NBC Stars (IN.) 13-5.
In the championship game, Mount Washington turned out to have the deepest pitching staff as they beat the Indiana Prospects 6-1. Brandon Klefot got the win as the starting pitcher before he ran out of innings and turned the ball over to Noah Castello who worked the last four innings.
“That just capped it all off,” Ezell said of the title that the team had been pointing too all season. “That was the plan.”
The Mud Cats finished the 2011 campaign with a 26-10 record.
In the eight games in Columbus, nine of the 13 players on the roster did some pitching. Over the season, the key pitchers for the team were Klefot and Castello along with Garrett Wilson, Kyle McKinley and Troy O’Brien.
“We just wanted to travel,” Ezell said of starting the Mud Cats. “We wanted to build a good program and we did that.”
Until this season, the Mud Cats worked within the Mount Washington Youth Baseball League.
“We thought it was good to stay in the league and we wanted to be loyal to the league,” Ezell pointed out. “At 13, we could have done that, but the group really wanted to be a travel bunch.”
The best news for baseball fans in Mount Washington, as well as Bullitt East baseball coach Jeff Bowles, is that 12 of the 13 team members live in the Charger school district. Most of the All-Star or ‘travel’ teams that the Mud Cats faced drew players from multiple school districts. Three of the players will be freshmen at Bullitt East this fall while eight will be eighth-graders.
Two of the team members, Kyle McKinley and Alton Payton, are technically 12-year olds in the eyes of USSSA. Klefot, who played for the Blue Lick All-Stars that won the U-10 West Kentucky State Tournament in 2008, joined the Mount Washington group this season.
The one non-Mount Washington team member is Zac Ching who played against the Mud Cat players for a number of years in the Fern Creek league before joining the group recently.
At the USSSA World Series, the Mud Cats hit .386 as a team and had eight players bat over .350 for the tournament. At the final awards ceremony, the tournament’s Defensive MVP was the Mud Cats’ Garrett Ezell while teammate Clayton Stallings was the Offensive MVP while batting .500. The Team MVP award went to Tyler Sharpe who hit .565 in the eight games.
Since 2006, this Mud Cats team has posted a remarkable 155-66-2 record. They competed in 39 tournaments, winning 15 and finishing as the runners-up in 11 more. Over the last two years, the program has posted a 49-16 record.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we have good parents and we appreciate what they do and their patience to let us do what we have done,” Ezell said.
There were fewer games and a later start this season because of basketball.
“This year we didn’t get started until March,” Ezell pointed out. “Because of basketball we kept pushing it back. This group has been together so long they know what to do. We just worked on the weaknesses some.”
There might not be a better traveling team coaching staff than the one that Ezell put together. Craig Sharpe is the associate head baseball coach at Bullitt East and three summers ago helped that team reach the state semi-finals. Rakes is one of Troy Barr’s top basketball assistants and was instrumental in the Chargers’ reaching the state basketball tournament semi-finals this past winter. Chris Stallings has coached the Bullitt East girls’ basketball program to back-to-back Sixth Region title games and has an Eighth Region title as well as coaching the Kentucky All-Stars this past summer.
“We pretty much all know our roles and share the duties,” Ezell said. “I’m only the head coach because I do the paperwork. That’s fine with me.”