Photos: Larch Mountain Wins Little League District Championship

From Thursday: Vassar Shuts Down Centralia in Semifinals

By Jordan Nailon / jnailon@chronline.com

RAYMOND — The sluggers from Centralia Little League met their match for at least one game here on Thursday as Larch Mountain rode the big arm of Michael Vassar to a 5-2 win in the 12-year-old District 3 semifinal game.

Vassar, a broad-shouldered, right-handed hurler who relies on a plus fastball and a big hook curveball, pitched into the sixth inning before he ran into trouble. His final line in the win included seven strikeouts, just four hits and two runs allowed. Vassar said he didn’t have a complicated game plan to take down Centralia, he just let his pitches, and his defense, work for him.

“I just wanted to throw strikes and make them hit ground balls to get outs,” Vassar said after postgame pleasantries during which he thanked his defense for having his back.

“They played good. They made plays,” added Vassar.

Aside from making nearly every routine play that came their way, the Larch Mountain defense also turned in a pair of web gems beneath the dim lights of Riverdale Field on the muddy banks of Willapa Harbor.

In the third inning, right fielder Taydee Evenstar came charging in on a diving line drive off the bat of Centralia leadoff batter Tucker Kemph. Evenstar left his feet with his cleats facing the foul pole and his face pointed toward home plate in an effort to make a Superman catch, but the ball glanced off of his glove before careening off of his chest. Sensing an opportunity Kemph took off for second base. Evenstar, though, was determined to declare right field a no-go zone and promptly gathered the ball up before firing a well-aimed throw toward second base where shortstop Will Feltus was waiting to slap the tag on Kemph for the out.

In the fourth inning, Centralia again looked poised to get a rally going before the Larch Mountain defense clamped down. Ross Kelley got things going with a single before Jon Leedy and Carlos Vallejo drew walks to load the bases. Then, with two outs, a Centralia batter scorched a one-hopper into the hole between first and second base that looked destined to score at least one run. That’s when, at the last second, Larch Mountain first baseman Koner Burnett threw up his trapper hand and knocked the baseball back down to earth before calmly tossing it over to Vassar who had scampered off the mound to cover first base for the inning-ending out.

Larch Mountain Coach Adam Culp credited his team’s familiarity and faith in one another for their ability to make big time plays in clutch situations.

“This group has played with each other for three straight years and this is their third straight district All-Star tournament. Team unity is what’s kept this team alive. They cheer for one another and they trust in one another. The trust is huge. They believe in one another and they rely on one another and it shows,” explained Culp.

Larch Mountain gave their pitcher a lead to work with in the second inning when Evenstar singled with the bases loaded to score Kole Smith. In the third inning, Vassar helped himself out by knocking a single and then advancing all the way around to score on a series of passed balls and wild pitches. In the fifth inning, Austin Gonia got things going with a walk before Chris Butcher racked his second double of the day to put runners on second and third. Smith then drove in Gonia with a single and Burnett brought home Butcher with a fielder’s choice groundout. In the fifth inning, Larch Mountain added an insurance run when Gonia scored Carson Rotter with a fielder’s choice groundout of his own.

Butcher led the Larch Mountain offense with two doubles and a run scored. Evenstar, Rotter, Smith and Vassar all added hits to the team’s tally.

“He’s definitely one of our team leaders. We rally with him,” said Coach Culp of Butcher, who holds down leftfield when he’s not wielding a big stick. “He’s pretty much the muscle, we call him the bulldog of the group because he’s built and he’s solid. He’s a football player too and we rely on his bat. He’s come up big in this tournament.”

In the sixth inning, Vassar finally ran out of gas on the mound as Centralia tried to come back all at once. Jimmy Womach and Ross Kelley singled to start the inning before Larch Mountain called in Daniel Rodas from the bullpen. Womach wound up scoring thanks to a miscue in the outfield and Kelley came home on a fielder’s choice by Javier Rodrigeuez, but Rodas was able to hold the line for Larch Mountain with a strikeout to end the game.

Kelley and Womach were the only Centralia players to notch hits on the day, but their coach, Matt Kelley, had faith that his charges would be able to rebound in time to earn a rematch with Larch Mountain in the championship game.

“(Vassar) threw pretty hard and he could mix it up pretty well,” noted Coach Kelley. “I think we’ll be alright. We just have to come out and hit the ball. We saw a pretty good pitcher tonight and some of the kids had a tough time hitting him. I thought through the first couple of games we hit the ball well and we just need to swing it again.”

The loss set Centralia up with a loser-out game against Montesano on Friday evening in order to figure out who will play Larch Mountain in the District title game on Saturday. Centralia defeated Montesano 8-5 earlier in the tournament thanks to a strong pitching performance by Jon Leedy.

“We were just talking about how there is no tomorrow. We’ve got to come out and we’ve got to be flying all over the field and diving for balls and just go up to the plate ready to hit,” said Coach Kelley. “They’re a pretty loose bunch so we just need to do what we do.”

Larch Mountain defeated Aberdeen 15-9 in their first game of the tournament and then downed Capitol 5-0 to set up their semifinal affair with Centralia. Coach Culp said he plans to pitch Austin Gonia on Saturday no matter who his team faces in the championship.

“This team has two aces. One you saw tonight in Michael Vassar and the other was behind the plate catching,” said Coach Culp in reference to Gonia.

Larch Mountain will face the winner of the Centralia versus Montesano at 10 a.m. on Saturday in Raymond. Larch Mountain needs to win just once to claim the district title while the team that comes out of the loser’s bracket would need to defeat Larch Mountain twice in order to advance to the state tournament in Richland.

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