Kids Get Jump-Start In Baseball

Little Guys Taking Big Step

Posted: July 19, 2013

HARRISONBURG – Jason Stuhlmiller, a former baseball coach at Eastern Mennonite University, has been around the diamond for years, but he had never been hit during pre-game warm-ups until he signed up to help coach Little League with Broadway’s 9- and 10-year-old all-stars this summer.

A throw from Broadway’s third baseman to home plate sailed 10 feet wide of his mark, striking Stuhlmiller in the eye. The injury required stitches after the game.

Hey, nobody said 9- and 10-year-olds were fundamentally perfect.

But the level of play in Little League’s youngest sanctioned division might surprise you.

Broadway, which won its opening game of the state tournament 14-4 over York County in Richmond on Thursday, has four pitchers – Tanner Lantz, Bryce Suters, Gage Allebaugh and Chase Semmig – capable of throwing three pitches, including a changeup and a small cutter. Breaking balls at age 9 or 10 is impressive enough, but Stuhlmiller, who assists head coach and Rockingham County sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, said the coaching focus begins to shift past fundamentals at the 9-10 division and into baseball strategy.

“That’s the fun part to teach,” said Stuhlmiller, an ordained minister who works full-time as an area director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “Even when I was at the high school and collegiate level, everyone knew how to throw, run and catch, but they’re not baseball smart.”

Baseball intelligence is beginning to be addressed at the 9-10 level in Little League, including situational tactics. More importantly, pitching fundamentals come into play.

“They’ve done a real good job,” Broadway High School coach Charlie Shepard said of the town’s Little League coaches, pointing out that BHS assistant junior varsity coach Tim Turner led the JV squad to the high school summer league title and the 10-11 all-stars to the District 3 championship game. “I’ve worked with some of them. I try to stay away from the curveball, because in my opinion it’s too young. But change speeds, locate, a little bit of a cutter. It’s been a very good summer.”

Players 8 and under focus almost solely on defensive fundamentals and swinging at soft, overhand pitches thrown by their own coaches. The 9-10 division is the first one that allows kids to pitch in games, and it can be a steep learning curve.

“The big adjustment for any of them coming into the 9 and 10 competitive level is the variety of pitching,” Hutcheson said. “… There are kids down here that throw changeups and curves, so it’s a pretty drastic difference – maybe not a true curve, but a cutter with some spin.”

That alone, he said, can freeze kids who haven’t seen it before.

Luckily, Broadway’s All-Stars have four experienced 11-year-olds at the top of their lineup. Allebaugh leads off. Suters bats second. Lantz hits third and Bryson Lutz – BHS football coach Brad Lutz’s son – follows in the cleanup spot.

All four played on last year’s state all-star team as 9-year-olds.

And all four did their job in sparking a strong-hitting team on Thursday against York, as Broadway improved to 1-0 in pool play. Today, Broadway will play at noon against Cave Spring – which also won on Thursday – before facing Coeburn to complete pool play on Saturday. The top two teams advance.

“We can hit top to bottom,” Hutcheson said. “Being consistent at that is important because when you’re not hot, that can be your demise.”

A large reason for Broadway’s hitting prowess is its experience.

It has just three 9-year-olds on the team, meaning the rest are 10 and have likely seen a full season of competitive pitching.

On Thursday, the foursome of Allebaugh, Suters, Lantz and Lutz each had at least two hits. Broadway also managed several doubles, including a pair of bases-loaded extra-base hits from the top of its lineup.

“When they’re hitting well, it’s contagious,” Hutcheson said. “All of a sudden, our whole lineup is hitting. And they did today. That’s why we won today.” 

Broadway needed only five innings to do it, winning via slaughter rule.

 “We have a really aggressive team,” said Stuhlmiller, whose 10-year-old son, Landen, plays center field and pitches. “We focus on taking the hands to the baseball, hitting and being aggressive on the base paths.”

The Broadway all-stars got a special treat Monday evening before reporting to Richmond for the state tournament: listening to advice from James Madison coach Spanky McFarland and practicing at Veterans Memorial Park.

McFarland, as it turned out, could relate.

Hutcheson recalled the JMU skipper telling Broadway’s all-star squad about coaching his son and current JMU player, Tyler McFarland, as a Little League player in the state tournament for a team that finished third.

Broadway will try to top that in Richmond.