Phil Hardin

Phil Hardin 11-year-old All-Star Zane Pritchard, left, tosses the ball to Ben Patrick Carpenter at second base as they imitate a pick-off move Wednesday morning at the team's practice field.

The 11-year-old All-Star Phil Hardin baseball squad is hoping the third time’s the charm as they prepare for the Mississippi Cal Ripken State Tournament, set to begin Friday in Petal.

The same crop of players fell short as 9 and 10-year-olds, finishing second in the tournament the past two seasons.  

Coach Chuck Butler, who has served as the head man of the team through that tenure, says he would like nothing more than for his team to bring the state title home to Meridian.

“I’d love to see them win this,” Butler said, whose squad takes the field for the time at 1 p.m. Friday. “They’re a great bunch boys that love baseball, and they have either been playing with or against each other the past few years. So they all know each other really well. It’s a great group of parents that show tremendous support, and we all just have a great time together.”

Meridian has been hard at work for the past few weeks, fine-tuning the areas in which Butler feels may provide his squad the upper-hand.

“We are just trying to tie up the loose ends these past couple of days,” Butler said. “They are learning to do the right things and learning to do what it takes to be successful. We’ve been working on pickoffs and trying to hold runners close to the bag. We’ve been working on the things that I see in travel baseball that teams don’t do very well.

“All these kids know how to field, and all of them know how to hit, so we’ve been working on the finer points of the game to try and give us an edge over the teams that we will play.”

Yet Butler highlighted the backbone of the team, singling out the pitching staff as serving as the strength, particularly with its depth.  

“Basically everybody on our team has pitched during league play,” Butler said. “I would consider of the 13 players on the team, probably 10 of them have a very good chance of pitching. Depth at pitching is probably our strong point.”

Butler will have the added benefit of being able to dip into that pitching depth if one of his hurlers is laboring as he is willing to going into the bullpen early and often if need be.

“We just don’t have to be real patient,” he said. “If someone is unable to throw strikes or if they’re getting hit, our pitching depth gives us the luxury of being able to get them on out of there before we give up a big inning.”

However, Butler identified the offense as the focal point to the team’s success this weekend in Petal.

“The key for us is how well we hit through our lineup,” Butler said. “We are going to pitch well, and I think we’ll play pretty sound defense. We’ll be ahead of the game in terms of holding runners on, and that kind of thing, but the key to us winning is how well we swing the bat.”

If Meridian manages to claim a state title this weekend, they will advance to the Regional Tournament July 17 in Hurley.

“We’ve never really had all the kids there at one time (in years past)," Butler said. "And I think if we had all of our best guys there (this year), we would probably stand a really good chance of winning it. We’ll have a couple of our better ones that aren’t going to be there, but these guys work hard together, and you never know in baseball.

“We have the pitching and we can hit it a little bit, too.”

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