By Bobby Whitt/ Courier Contributor
Don’t count out the Woodbury Post 279 Lions when the 2013 American Legion Junior Division State Tournament begins at Columbia State this week.
The Lions, sponsored by Hilton Stone American Legion Post 279 in Woodbury, open state tournament play against Mt. Juliet Post 281 Thursday at 8 p.m.
The eight-team, double-elimination tournament runs Wednesday through Monday with the champion earning a berth into the American Legion Junior Division Regional Tournament in Bryant, Ark.
This is Woodbury Post 279’s first year to sponsor American Legion Baseball;however, the Lions have competed and held their own in the oldest amateur baseball league in America.
“We have kept getting better this summer and the teams we have played this summer are tougher than what we faced last summer,” said Nathan McGuire, the only rising senior on the Cannon County High School baseball team. “We have been in a lot of the games and the competition should make us better. We have held our own. The state tournament will have a lot of good teams but we have beat some of the teams in the field so we know we have a chance if we play well.”
All of the players on the 18-man roster are Cannon County High School players.
Mt. Juliet will feature a more experienced team than Woodbury. All but three of Mt. Juliet’s players will be seniors in 2013-14; however, being the youngest team on the field is nothing new for Woodbury Post 279.
“Because of the way our team is structured are by far the youngest team on the field,” manager Tony Stinnett said. “That is one of the reasons I am so proud of the way these young men have conducted themselves, held their own and competed this summer. There will be times when you are playing more experienced high school teams so you have to get used to playing more experienced teams in the summer when you have an opportunity. Our kids have played hard and earned the respect of opposing coaches and players throughout the summer. More importantly, we have continued to improve. I believe our confidence is greater even though we have faced some tough challenges.”
The American Legion State Tournaments are played with wood bats so that adds to the competitiveness of the tournament.
Players on the Woodbury Post 279 roster believe their chance to succeed comes down to pitching and defense.
“We have been consistent with our pitching and defense most of the summer,” said rising sophomore Graden Strang, who is the projected starting pitcher for the state tournament opener. “As long as we remain constant in those areas we give ourselves a chance to win.”
Stinnett said the team’s pitching has been a strong suit all summer.
“We believe we have five pitchers who can step on the mound for a start and give our team a chance to win,” Stinnett said. “We have seven-to-eight who are ready to pitch in games. (Strang, McGuire), Tucker Francis, Nick Vassar and Austin Martin can all provide quality starts, and Jared Judkins has made great strides this summer. Jackson Mason, Sam Schau, Chandler Todd and Jonathon Mitchell have also had bright spots this summer.”
Rising junior Trent Bragg has enjoyed a solid summer defensively and at the plate. The catcher says the team’s confidence is much greater even though it has played a high level of competition.
“Some of the teams we have played have been real good,” Bragg said. “I would say most are better than a lot of high school teams you see but once we got in the games and were able to play with these teams I believe it helped our confidence and has showed us how good we can be.”
The Lions are guaranteed to play Friday. They will play in the winner’s bracket at 8 p.m. if they win Thursday. A loss against Mt. Juliet would send the Lions into the loser’s bracket for a 3 p.m. game.
Stinnett said he is most pleased with the team’s attitude and work ethic throughout the summer.
“Our team chemistry is great and that has revealed itself this summer,” Stinnett said. “We have had to overcome injuries to (Nick Vassar, Jake Todd, Cole Barnes). These players work hard, love the game and have a desire to get better and succeed. Based on this summer there is reason for optimism as long as we don’t become satisfied and continue to work.”