Lufkin validates decision with berth

Lufkin has long featured strong baseball. Becoming a Little League program, however, was no easy task.

Not until 2012 did Lufkin, Texas, join Little League. And that only came after facing some serious resistance. Many questioned whether it was the right move and even more wondered if Lufkin could be competitive against so many traditional powers in a baseball-rich state.

Nobody is raising those questions any more. In six short seasons, Lufkin Little League has become one of the world’s best programs. Lufkin captured the Southwest Regional championship and is competing at the Little League World Series for the first time. It has carved out a unique niche, becoming the first team from East Texas to play in South Williamsport.

“With the success we’ve had in our program’s short existence, everybody knows, especially now, what Lufkin Little League is all about,” Lufkin Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Matt Hubert said. “There are a lot of people that would like to be a part of it.”

Expect that number to only grow since Lufkin has reached Little League’s biggest stage. It has been a rapid rise for this young program and this group of 13 hard-working players has helped it achieve the ultimate breakthrough.

That was something the doubters never envisioned when Lufkin discussed making the move from Dixie League and Dizzy Dean League baseball that had existed there for so long. Between those organizations and the rise of travel ball, players were becoming more scattered throughout the community. What the city wanted was to bring those players together and provide both an affordable service that featured competition at a high level. An opportunity at generating greater exposure for those players also proved enticing.

Still, critics remained. It was not an easy sell, but the move was made and Lufkin rapidly started building something good. And look at what has been built now. The critics might be silent, but Lufkin Little League sure is making noise.

“Some were afraid to change and some were set in their ways and had it not been for our early success we might still be fighting that battle,” Lufkin Parks and Recreation Director Mike Akridge said. “It’s beyond comprehension, everything that is going on right now with the community support. Everybody that is associated with these kids is on Cloud 9. Everyone behind us 100 percent. It’s really a blessing for Lufkin. These kids put us on the map.”

While this team has shown the world what Lufkin Little League can do, it was the first Lufkin Major Division all-star team that helped pave the way. When so many were still questioning if Lufkin playing Little League was the right decision, that inaugural team made a huge statement. That team captured the Texas East championship and reached the Southwest final, finishing one game shy of reaching the Series after losing to McAllister Park from San Antonio.

Although it did not reach the Series, a message had been sent. It was obvious that Lufkin had made the right decision.

“What really helped was that in our first year of existence Lufkin Little League went to the Southwest final,” Hubert said. “Right away after that, there was a buzz about participation.”

“That first year was huge because it helped our numbers and a lot of people who were negative with the word Little League and their worries about the size of our community against the big cities were not as concerned any more.”

The Parks and Recreation members never were concerned about competing against bigger cities. Neither were the others in favor of moving to Little League. While Lufkin is a small town with a 35,000 population, it is sports-driven and tradition-laden. The football and baseball programs have been strong at all levels for years. The high school baseball team competes in the state’s highest classification so the board and other advocates never doubted the Little League could flourish.

They might not have expected to reach the Series so quick, but those who understood Lufkin best knew good things could and would happen. That has never been more true than this season as Lufkin smoothly navigated daunting district, section, state and Southwest tournaments, going undefeated. Equally impressive, Lufkin went 4-0 against past Series participants Lamar, Pearland and San Antonio, teams that reached the Series eight times since 2003.

“We went down there in Houston (for states) and we really didn’t know what to expect out of Pearland and Lamar because they were and always are really good,” Lufkin manager Bud Maddux said. “I didn’t know what we were getting into, but I felt like we could compete. We have a talented bunch of young men on this team and they get after it hard every morning and every afternoon.”

That is one of the many qualities that endears this team and this league to its community. This team is a reflection of the values the community embraces. It also is the reflection of what Lufkin wanted to create when this journey started in 2012. Reaching the Series is great, but seeing the league’s members perform so well on and off the field might be the greatest compliment.

“These kids have done more for the community than words could explain,” Hubert said. “They have provided not just hope, but in the society we live in, this is much needed positive publicity for the players and coaches and the families who have committed so much time. That’s been infectious, not just in Lufkin, but for all of East Texas.”

All the validation Lufkin needs that the right decision was made in 2012 is right there. The good times might be just getting started, too. Still, forget future for right now.

Look at where Lufkin is and what it has achieved. This is something that will last forever.

“This is a storybook run for Lufkin,” Akridge said. “They will go in the record books at Lufkin and 50 years from now these kids can look back and say they did something so special.”