By Joseph Garcia
Liberty Hill baseball is going national.
The Fighters select baseball team, based in Liberty Hill, is gearing up for the Baseball Youth Nationals Tournament in Elizabethtown, Ky., just south of Louisville, June 21-27, to compete in the 13U division in what will likely be a 24-team pool.
In their fourth year of existence now, most of the Fighters players have been together since they were 8 and 9 years old and have won way more games than they have lost.
The program’s success begins with the families involved, according to Fighters founder Chris Carlisle.
“This whole system works because of the kids that I have and the parents I have,” Carlisle said. “I have the most awesome set of parents for my teams that you can have. They make my job easy. They see that we actually care about their boys.”
Carlisle along with Denny Cheney and John Gabrielson coach and manage the team. Carlisle, a police officer of 17 years in Austin, said Coach Cheney manages the team, while he is the first assistant coach. Coach Gabrielson, a former professional and college baseball player, is the only paid coach on staff.
“We wanted the boys to develop better as baseball players and be able to play more games and tournaments with quality coaching beyond what league ball was offering,” Carlisle explained. “What sets us apart from all the other select baseball programs you see is I don’t do this for money. I don’t make a dime off any of this. We are a registered non-profit.”
The Fighters family is growing, too.
What started four years ago with one baseball team has now expanded to four and this coming fall season the Fighters will have four to six baseball teams and two to three girls fast pitch softball teams.
Carlisle said that every single select baseball team they have faced in which parents have invested thousands of dollars, the Fighters have defeated.
“We’ve run-ruled them all and beat them all because we actually care about the quality of coaching. When I look out on the field, I don’t see $25,000 out of those 10 players. I see 10 families that I know I’m responsible for doing the best I can for their kids. That’s more important to me than $25,000,” he said.
The only thing Carlisle ever gets for free are a pair of Mizuno shoes, which is the team’s official sponsor.
Fundraising is one of the biggest reasons the non-profit group is thriving.
“Because everything is set at zero, and this year we did a lot of fundraising, our parents for this year for 16 booked tournaments only paid $400,” Carlisle said. “Because of all the fundraising we did from last fall to this spring they only had to pay $100 each month. There is not a cheaper program around.”
The Fighters consist of seven 12-year-olds and four 13-year-olds. All of the players hail from the Liberty Hill area with the exception of one from Fort Worth, who joins the team for most competitions.
“Those 12-year-olds have been together for four seasons,” Carlisle said. “They have grown up together and developed from boys into guys. And the 13-year olds we added this year are just incredible. They have taken more of a leadership role.”
Last year as an 11-year-old team, the Fighters finished second in the Super Series World Series tournament in Round Rock, losing a best-of-three series two games to one in the championship series. The year before as 10-year olds, the Fighters placed fourth in that same tournament.
There has been a steady progression of the program’s success each year.
“This year, from June 21-27, we’ve been invited to the Baseball Youth Nationals (Tournament),” Carlisle explained. “They take the top 64 teams per age group and play them in a tournament. We got called in January.”
The event features as many as 24 teams in each age division from six different age groups, 9U-14U. Each team is guaranteed at least six games; half will play seven games, with a maximum of 10 games possible.
Teams are carefully selected from all submitted registrations to promote an even playing level with parity among participating teams, which is unique to the Nationals.
To help ready them for the National Tournament, the Fighters will play June 1-2 at the Super Series Championship tournament. Then June 7-8 they will travel to Dripping Springs to participate in the United States Specialty Sports Association State Championship.
“This is going to be an awesome test going to Louisville,” Carlisle said. “From what I’ve been told there will be a couple of other teams from Texas there, but none that we’ve played. So I don’t know what we’re going up against.”
The Elizabethtown Sports Park was completed in July 2012 and is considered the best youth baseball complex in the country. The park features pristine fields, covered stadium spectator seating, wireless electronic scoreboards, covered and enclosed dugouts, and wireless Internet to name a few amenities.
It will be the experience of a lifetime for the young ball players.
“Their parks are beautiful,” Carlisle said. “They look like little major league stadiums. They are immaculate. And the (championship) game is at night and is broadcast on the Internet so is basically like a major league experience for them in the championship game. So hopefully we make it.”
As part of the tournament experience, the Fighters will tour the famous Louisville Slugger bat factory and museum where they will see the world’s biggest bat, an iconic, six-story tall replica of Babe Ruth’s bat.
But that is not where their experience will end.
On Monday, June 24, the Fighters will be attending a Louisville Bats baseball game, a minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, and were asked to take the field with the team before the game.
It’s a big deal for Carlisle, an Ohio native.
“The Louisville Bats called me and asked if our Fighters team would be on the field with their players during the National Anthem,” Carlisle said proudly. “That will be great.”
The adventure to Kentucky will likely be full of fun and wonderment, but the Fighters will also be there to do something they have come accustomed to: winning. Who knows, they might just come back to Liberty Hill as champions.