Hitting hard at 15

Baseball talent showcased at Triple Crown quarterfinals

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— Cheering crowds and the classic sound of wooden bat to baseball echoed around Howelsen Hill on Saturday during the 15-and-younger Triple Crown World Series playoff games.

"The wooden bats are fun, but it's a challenge because of the very small sweet spot," said Kevin Starr of the Liberty Blues before his quarterfinal game Sunday at Howelsen Hill's Simillion field.

"It ends up evening the teams out."

Hailing from Liberty, Mo., the Blues advanced after shutting out the SCBSA Jets Blue, 11-0, on Friday. The win forced a matchup against a scrappy Frozen Ropes squad from Franklin, Mass.

The Ropes advanced with a 7-4 extra-inning upset victory against the defending champion Arizona Desert Dragons.

On Saturday, the Blues put their bats to work, knocking in seven runs in the bottom of the second inning. The Ropes couldn't provide an answer. In the bottom of the fourth, Nathan Le Blanc sealed the Blues victory with a solo home run over the center field fence. The game ended, 10-2, after six innings.

"It's not too often that you see a 15-year-old kid hit a shot 325 feet with a wooden bat," Ropes third baseman Tony Trafecanty said about Le Blanc's homer.

Steamboat Springs High School assistant baseball coach Andy Hogrefe was in attendance and was equally impressed by the talented level of play.

"I want all my guys to come and watch these teams play," Hogrefe said. "There's a 13-year-old over there throwing 85-mph pitches. I was talking with a (Colorado high school) ump who was saying these (15-and-younger players) could probably beat the best teams in our league."

The Blues players were already looking ahead to their semifinal match against the Arizona Aztecs.

"We have one weekend off all summer that we're not playing baseball," Blues left fielder Jimmy Smelcer said about the competitive tournament squad that took second in the Omaha Baseball Tournament.

Blues coach Jin Brennan said the team plays 50 to 60 games a summer and is drawn from a freshmen team that feeds the 5A Liberty High School baseball program.

"It's the second largest high school in Missouri," said Mark Mathes, parent of Blues reliever Jordan Mathes. "I've been bringing my sons to this for nine years, and I'll tell you that Saturday is the key day to the tournament with pitching."

Without the same Triple Crown World Series experience, Frozen Ropes parents thought their pitching peaked during their stunning upset Friday behind closer Eric Hairler.

Their pitchers simply ran out of steam Saturday.

Players and parents on both sides agreed that the Steamboat venue provided a great excuse to travel across the country.

"This is great. I've never been to Colorado before, so we decided to make a vacation out of it," said George Hairler, who said a contingent of about 40 parents and siblings that made the trip from New England to support their team.

The World Series Cham-

pionship games for all four divisions will be held throughout the day at the Howelsen Hill fields. Visit www.triplecrownsports.com for updated results and game schedules.

-- To reach Dave Shively, call 846-1129

or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com

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