As head coach of both the cross country and distance track and field teams at UNC-Pembroke, Gary Aycock knows that in a marathon race it’s those who finish strongest that prove to be victorious in the end.
Such is the case with the 8U Next Level Scots travel baseball team, of which Aycock’s son Aaron is a member. Assembled in 2011 to face a slew of top-notch teams from throughout the Carolinas, the Next Level Scots struggled initially to find their footing, to the tune of a 5-15 start in tournament games.
But as the team continued to gell and improve at all facets of the game, the wins began to pile up. In fact, after the rough start that defined the first half of their inaugural season, the Next Level Scots went on a tear and finished the 2011 season at 22-22, a .500 record.
However, that was last year. With the 2012 season now in the books, the Next Level Scots crossed the finish line with a 48-4 record, making them one of the top 8U travel ball teams in the southeast.
“When we started out, we were a bunch of seven year old kids playing eight year olds, and it wasn’t pretty early on,” said Next Level Scots head coach Jeff Byrd, who is also the head of the Scotland County School Board Athletic Committee. “But after a while you could start seeing their confidence build as they began to believe they could compete with any team, and from that point on we really started to turn the corner.”
In order to come full-circle and complete their one-year turnaround, the Next Level Scots had to compete against a familiar rival. The June 9th weekend saw the Scots travel to Charlotte to take part in the Nations Super Regional tournament, a tournament in which they would advance to the championship game after mowing through a 10-team field.
Their opponent was the West Raleigh Blue 8U travel baseball team, the very same team that bested the Next Level Scots in the Cal Ripken Eastern North Carolina tournament championship game that occurred in early July of last year. In that tournament, both teams as 7U squads faced off after competing against 10 other teams, and in the final game, both teams were tied 4-4 until the fourth inning when West Raleigh broke the game open. The final score was 14-6, and the Next Level Scots were awarded runner-up honors.
With that loss fresh in their heads, the Next Level Scots had the chance for redemption and, as an indication of how far they’ve truly come as a team, they didn’t falter. Despite a three-run sixth inning rally by West Raleigh, the Next Level Scots held on for the 5-4 win and the right to call themselves the Nations Super Regional tournament champions.
It was the culmination of a team’s dedication to improving as both players and competitors. And as he reflects on his team’s championship journey, Byrd sees his team carrying on the lessons they’ve learned to other endeavors in life.
“I think they’ve come to realize that if they can accomplish anything on the baseball diamond, they can accomplish anything in life too,” Byrd said. “Whether it’s hitting the books or hitting the baseball, hard work and the willingness to not quit almost always equates to success.”
In many ways, left-fielder Aaron Aycock’s development as a player mirrors that of the Next Level Scots as a whole. From getting his start on Byrd’s 6U For Sale Clinic Optimist Club baseball team to his first year on the Next Level Scots, Aycock was unable to catch, throw or hit consistently, which led to many frustrating moments for the youngster. But rather than quit, Aycock gutted out the early growing pains, and in November of 2010 (the Next Level Scots’ first season together) he had his breakout moment: a home run.
“A lot of the coaches and parents were fighting back tears, because here was this kid who was struggling so badly that his family was debating on whether they should continue to participate, and then he gets his first big hit,” Byrd said. “It was such a proud moment, and that changed everything for Aaron.”
Aaron Aycock is now batting fifth in the lineup, and is one of the team’s most productive hitters. And while the team is currently enjoying an all-too-brief month break before the 2012-13 season begins in August, father Gary Aycock is excited to see where his son, and the Next Level Scots in general, can go from here.
“I remember our first-ever tournament as a team and how badly we got beat up,” Aycock said. “And now we’ve developed into one of the best travel ball teams around, and to have my son be a part of that is really special to our family. He loves the game of baseball, but it’s the camaraderie and support he’s received on this team that I think he enjoys the most.”