Oregon coaches allow players to play free and easy

As Idaho players celebrated making the sixth-inning’s second out, Salem, Oregon’s, Henry Mhoon took a few steps off third base. Salem trailed by a run and was an out from seeing its season end.

Most players never would have thought about wandering too far from third. The situation might have made them nervous. They might have not been programmed to make a snap decision.

Not Mhoon. He remained confident and felt free.

As soon as the Idaho catcher ventured away from home and the pitcher looked away, Mhoon broke and sprinted for home, easily scoring the Northwest Regional championship game-tying run. Salem scored the go-ahead run on an error, Gavin Price closed it out in the bottom of the sixth, and Salem reached the Little League World Series for the first time, defeating Idaho, 5-4.

Manager Travis Price has done a masterful job coaching this team, but his ability to let his players make their own decisions has played a major role in Salem becoming the first team in Sprague Little League history to win state and regional championships.

“Henry’s a 4.0 student and a lot of them on the team are. I call my fast runners G runners and he’s a G runner. I give them permission to go. If you see something, go,” Price said. “If you get caught, you get caught. I let the kids coach a lot. It’s their game and I let them call a lot of the shots. If you see it, go for it. I’m not perfect either.”

This team has come a long way since Price became its coach two years ago. He is an outstanding tactician who knows how to get the most from each player. He is a baseball man, but Price is not a dictator. He does not want robots on the field.

When it be most tempting to take the reins, Price has kept his grip loose throughout this Little League World Series run. He game plans, he studies the opponent, and he knows more about baseball than most people forget. Still, Price also believes players are at their best when they are thinking for themselves and are confident enough to make split-second decisions. Mhoon’s steal caught both Idaho, and millions more watching on television, by surprise. But it actually was the fifth time he has done that this season. It was the latest example of Salem players using their freedom and their heads to their advantage to make something great happen.

Baseball is a kid’s game and Price is letting the kids play.

“We are very fortunate to have our manager, Travis Price. He’s definitely one of a kind. Honestly, in my opinion, he has made this happen,” Sprague Little League President Tony Strenke said. “When Henry stole home on that play that’s the nature of our boys and how baseball smart they really are by themselves. To add the coaching on top is just amazing. The coaches involved are great coaches and, together, they are outstanding.”

It is not just the bases where Price gives players the green light. He allows pitchers and catchers to often call pitches. Catcher Riley Wilson is 11-years-old and can take over a game with his mind, his arm and his instincts. Gavin Price was confident enough in the Northwest championship to make his own pitch decisions at key times, and he was brilliant in relief.

Maybe the decisions are not always right, but the coaches do not always make the correct calls either. As much as Price wants to win, he also wants his players feeling free and loose. Reaching this destination has been a dream, but Price always has had the big picture in mind and is hoping his players do even better in high school and possibly beyond. Having them understanding the game so well, so young likely will help.

“I watch a lot of baseball and a lot of times its micro-managed and, as a player, I would not like that. The all-star season is a long season and the biggest threat is burnout,” Price said. “We have a baseball school called Baseball Dudes and one of the instructors says, ‘We trust kids to drive at 16, but we don’t trust pitchers to call a game until they’re 30.’ I think there is a lot to that and this is a way to keep them involved.”

The Salem players are as smart as they are talented. And the freedom they have certainly has paid dividends at the biggest times. As the games have grown larger, Salem has remained calm. It twice won one-run games at regionals and twice took one-run decisions against former Oregon nemesis and perennial state power Murrayhill at the state tournament.

Parents and fans find these games nervewracking because they have no control on the outcome. The Salem players know they are controlling everything. That is why they are having fun making history and living their Little League dreams.

“I asked the boys before the (Northwest) championship if they were nervous because my stomach was rumbling and they said, ‘No, we’re fine. We’re good. We’re ready to go.’ It was just the parents that were feeling it,” Strenke said. “I give it up to Travis. The way Travis maneuvers the kids is outstanding. He understands and he reads people and the game. He’s reading every emotion and every play. He’s just a phenomenal coach. He’s a once-in-a-long-time kind of coach. There’s not many of him around.”

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