By Les Dixon
TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
Since Little League All-Star action started over a month ago, Knox County’s Tucker Holland has been a man among boys — blowing away the competition on the mound and at the plate.
It wasn’t any different during Friday’s Little League State Championship game against North Oldham.
Holland’s two-run homer in the first inning, his fifth in 11 All-Star games this summer, and six strikeout effort on the mound in three innings of work, paved the way for the Knox County All-Stars’ 5-3 state title win over the outmatched North Oldham All-Stars.
The state title, Knox County’s second in a row, moves Scott Payne’s squad one step further to its ultimate goal — a trip to Williamsport, Pa. and a spot in the Little League World Series.
“That’s our main goal,” Holland said after striking out two of the three batters he faced in the sixth inning. “Our goal was to win the state, but we aren’t satisfied with just winning that. We want to go to the Little League World Series. This is just an amazing feeling.
His coach agreed.
“These guys out here set out a goal of reaching the Little League World Series and we just got closer to that goal,” he said. “They have put a lot of work to get to this point, and your ultimate goal as a Little League baseball player is to win the state championship first and they have achieved it at the state level, but we’re not quitting here. We want to keep the (Little League World Series) dream alive.
“We’re not content at all,” he added. “We want to represent the state of Kentucky in regional play in the best manner we possibly can and hopefully make the state proud.”
Knox County came out looking like the team to beat, as starting pitcher Caleb Powers retired the side in order after Jalen Adams turned a double play to end the top of the first inning.
A bloop single by Trey Owens in the bottom of the first, set the table for Holland, who followed with a towering home run over the right centerfield fence, giving his team a 2-0 edge.
Holland said he knew he had hit a home run as soon as the ball left his bat.
“It just felt good,” he said. “I think we was trying to get a fastball by me. That’s all they threw me were fastballs.”
Knox County’s lead grew to 3-0 in the bottom of the second inning after Thomas Jackson connected with his third home run of the All-Star season, a solo shot over the right field fence, increasing his team’s lead to 3-0.
It looked as if Payne’s squad was going to cruise to an easy win until the top of the third inning when Powers ran into some trouble.
After allowing a lead-off hit, Powers struck out the next two batters he faced, but a walk put runners on first and second and four pitches later, North Oldham’s Mark Harrod connected with a three-run homer to tie the game at three apiece.
That’s when Payne decided to go with Holland on the mound, and the right-handed fireballer struck out the lone batter he faced in the third inning.
The game was tied at three apiece, but it didn’t take Knox County long to take control.
Trey Owens reached base on a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the third while Holland walked to put runners on first and second. Peyton Payne drove in Owens with a single to make the score, 4-3, and Holland eventually score, giving his team a 5-3 cushion.
“That was huge,” Payne said of his team answering in the bottom of the third inning. “I told them they are going to take punches in the mouth. I told them it was going to be a battle and they knew it was going to be one.”
And that’s all the insurance Holland would need on the mound.
He mowed down the North Oldham line-up during the fourth and fifth innings, striking out three of the six batters he faced, and set North Oldham down in order in the sixth inning to wrap-up the state title win for Knox County.
“That’s the reason we didn’t start Tucker,” Payne said of Holland’s three and one/third scoreless effort on the mound. “A lot of people probably question me about that, but the plan was to start Caleb and if he got into any trouble, put Tucker in, and the plan worked. We stuck to it, and to give Tucker the ball with three innings to go, I like our chances of getting a win.”
Holland said he felt no added pressure coming in after North Oldham tied the game at three apiece in the third inning.
“I always get put in when it’s tight,” he said. “I just try to go out there and do my job. I felt like I was never getting loose (early on), but I was getting looser as the game went on. This is just a great feeling — it’s hard to describe.”
Little League State Championship
At Prestonsburg Stonecrest park
Knox County 5, North Oldham 3
North Oldham 003 000 3 1 0
Knox County 212 00X 5 5 0
WP – Holland. LP – Harrod. HR – Knox County – Holland and Jackson; North Oldham – Harrod.