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Check out the July 14 edition of The Observer for more previewing the State Little League Tournament.

Pitching has been one of the cornerstones of success of La Grande Little League for several years. It’s at the forefront yet again this summer, and could very well be what determines how far the host La Grande All-Stars go when they host the Oregon State Little League Tournament, beginning Saturday, right in their own backyard at Pioneer Park.

“I’ve got five phenomenal pitchers, and then five more kids who can get on the mound and throw strikes,” Manager Doug Schow said. “You can go pretty deep into our pitching staff, and you’re going to see one quality pitcher after another after another.”

Pitching, Schow said, is something the team constantly hones in on and tries to improve. For this year’s squad, that focus began back in the fall.

“This year, we did a strength and conditioning program up at the middle school,” Schow said. “We started in October, and twice a week, we were up there working on legs (and) core — a little bit of upper body, but mostly just legs and core. To tie those two things together has made a huge difference in our velocity and our accuracy.”

Schow isn’t taking any credit for the improvement, however.

“I have to give it to the kids. I didn’t require that the kids show up, but I’d say 10 to 11 kids, every time were there to work out,” he said.

The depth of the pitching staff also means opposing teams will see a wide variety of styles from La Grande.

“Pretty much our whole team can pitch, (and they throw) different speeds and different pitches,” said Jace Schow, one of the staff aces.

While pitching has been strong throughout, hitting is an area La Grande has seen ample improvement.

Case in point: the District 3 tournament last month in Enterprise. La Grande twice in the tournament faced a team in Pendleton that had strong pitching. Earlier in the season, Pendleton came away with two one-run victories.

At the district tournament, it was a different story. La Grande twice edged Pendleton by one run — including a 4-3 victory in the championship game.

Doug Schow credited that improvement to the players seeing different pitching from former high school and college players who volunteered their time to help throw batting practice.

“I’m really grateful for those guys coming in and helping out,” he said. “The kids are really seeing different arm slots, different velocities, getting used to (other) guys throwing. They don’t get used to just me throwing all the time. I think it really helped out. It showed.”

What could prove to be the X-factor for La Grande, though, is its depth. Schow was unable to single out one athlete — or even a handful of athletes — who carries the team.

“I see a lot of teams that are good (for the first) five or six kids, but the 7-8-9 kids are for-sure outs, or if you hit a ball to them, they’re not going to field it,” he said. “I don’t have that on this team. I don’t have (just one) kid that’s super fast. I don’t have one kid that just hits home runs every time at the plate. But I don’t have one kid that strikes out every time up, either. This is a complete team.”

Sam Tsiatsos said the team is loaded with talented athletes.

“Everyone has a special talent for everything on this team,” he said. “I have a feeling we’re going to do great at state and hopefully go to San Bernardino.”

That’s the ultimate goal for each of the eight teams in La Grande. The state winner heads to the West Regional Tournament Aug. 4-12 in San Bernardino, California, and will be one step closer to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

La Grande has come close to reaching regionals in recent years. The team took second last summer, and third in both 2015 and 2014.

This squad, though, is comprised of players who won the 8-10-year-old state championship in 2015. Logan Williams said that could play to La Grande’s advantage — not only in having the experience, but he also thinks that could give them a psychological edge, too.

“I think it might intimidate other teams because we’ve always been at state and placed either second or third (the last three years),” he said. “We always do good at state, so we might look good to other teams.”

And after being close the last few years, Doug Schow said that elusive state title for the 10-12 squad is the hope.

“Our goal is to win state,” he said. “There’s a lot of luck involved. We’ve got a lot of good kids, a lot of good pitching, but you have to have a lot of luck on your side. We’ll see what happens.”

La Grande opens the state tournament Saturday evening against a team it’s met the last two years, Wilshire/Riverside, out of Portland. Wilshire/Riverside earned an 8-4 victory in 2015 on its way to the state title. La Grande returned the favor a year ago with a 9-8 win in an elimination game.

The state championship game takes place Thursday.

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