NORTHWEST – Tampa has a rich history when it comes to Little League baseball. Players like Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez, Lou Piniella, Tony LaRussa, Luis Gonzalez and Wade Boggs have all graced the smaller fields of Tampa before the moved on to the big leagues.
Currently there is a local team accomplishing more than any other team in Tampa history. The Keystone Little League All-Star team for 11-year-olds won the district, sectional and state championships last season en route to the Southeast Regional title. This season they have won the district, sectional and state title again and will look to defend their Southeast Regional title this weekend in Greenville, NC.
The team is also on a 30 game winning streak, dating back to 2012. It is not something they claim to focus on, though.
“I don’t look at the streak. It’s game by game. You go to each level; district, sectional and state and we treat each one individually versus the continuum of the number of games,” said Keystone manager Jay Jackson.
A number of Keystone’s wins have not been close. This summer Keystone has outscored their opponents 124-17 in 10 games. Their closest encounter came against Niceville in the state semifinals. Keystone was down 2-1 entering the fifth inning – the games are only six innings long in little league – before rallying to win, 4-3.
“That moment was pretty pivotal in their growth,” Jackson said. “You could see them in the fifth inning all come together.”
Keaton Howard was on the mound to close out that game. With the tying run on second base, he admits he was nervous in the situation. When Keystone got the third out to win the game Howard was relieved.
“I was rejoicing,” Howard said.
Most players on Keystone have been playing since T-ball and are serious about their craft. Bobby Christy, for instance, has a batting cage in his garage that he spends time in almost every day. For Christy, playing baseball sounds like a perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.
“I love it. I wait all day to play,” Christy said.
Joey Johnston shares the same sentiment.
“I like everything about the game, especially hitting,” Johnston said.
The game isn’t the only reason reason the players of Keystone keep coming out in the summer time. Even though the players play on different teams during a regular season that stretches from January to May, most of the players have come up through the ranks together and have played with each other over multiple summers. They say friendships and team camaraderie are a big factor in their enjoyment of the game.
“The team is almost like family,” Howard said.
The Southeast Regional will be the last stop for Keystone this year. Next year they will be eligible for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Keystone will worry about this weekend first though.
“We talk about staying focused,” Jackson said. “Every pitch, every game.”