Being ranked No. 1 carries a lot of pressure in sports. You’ve got a constant target on your back; you’re exposed to more pressure and, most of the time, more scrutiny. More eyes watch you because, well, you’re the best.
For members of the Virginia Thunder 9U Little League team, the top is a familiar spot: They’ve topped the state rankings for the past season and a half. About three weeks ago, they reached a No. 1 national ranking according to USSSA, a youth baseball association.
The team now sits atop the national rankings, about four points ahead of a Miami-based little league team.
The team is composed almost exclusively of Chester residents; most of the kids attend Chesterfield County elementary schools, though a few team members hail from the Tri-Cities and surrounding areas. All of the coaches on the team call Chester home.
The team currently stands at 19-1 in its age group, and plays in tournaments in both North Carolina and South Carolina. The team’s only loss came in a tournament in North Carolina this year to the Carolina Cubs, who are currently ranked eighth nationally.
Recently, the team qualified for the 9U league’s version of the Little League World Series, called the Elite World Series for 9U players (The televised version on ESPN is actually 11U and 12U and in Pennsylvania.), in Orlando, but the team’s budget puts a restriction on where it can take a full slate of players and coaches to compete. The team members’ parents usually foot the bill for any travel that comes up on the team’s schedule.
“Many teams at this level have some sort of major corporate sponsors, or at least a few smaller ones,” explained coach Jeremy Cole.
“We wanted to see how good we could get as a team,” he said. “This team is definitely ready for some sort of corporate sponsorship as many of the most talented teams at the tournaments we play at already have.”
The Thunder has two major fundraisers it holds throughout the year; at both NASCAR races at Richmond International Raceway, they sell pretzels and lemonade. Last time out, the team was able to raise about $1,200, but that’s not enough money to finance some of the better trips or tournaments the team has qualified for, such as the Orlando tournament.
The team has plenty of talent, including four players currently featured on travelbaseballselect.com, who are profiled as talent of the future. The team’s top players include left fielder Drake Hundley, who leads the team in hits; centerfielder Justin Parker; catcher Ronnie Caricose; Justin Stark; and pitcher Matt Bartlett.
One might inquire about how a team of 9 year olds can be so together and handle the pressure of playing at such a high level. The fact that most of the roster has played together for the last three seasons may have something to do with it.
“We’ve got some exceptional coaches on this roster,” said Cole. “The kids have been playing together a number of years and their level of teamwork is very high. This definitely wins them a good amount of games.”
Manager Ronald Caricose, and coaches Kevin Summerfield, Todd Tuck, Greg Bartlett and Cole emphasize fundamentals and teamwork.
“The kids are young, so they will still make mistakes, but any ball player makes mistakes,” said Cole. “We just play great team defense and play exceptionally well together.
“We are also a disciplined team, and that’s something a lot of younger teams don’t possess.”
The Thunder will soon play in the Virginia State Championships in Yorktown, Va. That competition will come on the heels of a tournament in Mechanicsville at Pole Green Park.