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Auburn's Little League heroes taking the ride in stride
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – They miss their friends and families, their hometown and other comforts, but Auburn's heroes, coaches and parents are enjoying the ride of their lives.
Entering Wednesday's crucial game with Southwest champion Pearland, Texas, the boys in green and gold were still trying to soak in their amazing run to the Little League World Series. Even the team's heroes, who have come up with big plays on offense and defense, say they have been humbled and awed by the experiences of the past week.
Auburn takes on Texas at 1 p.m. today (ESPN) for a berth in Saturday's U.S. championship game.
One of the big bats for Auburn, Isaiah Hatch, said he was living a dream when he came through with a big hit.
“I'll probably always remember hitting a home run here,” he said of his clout that broke open a tight, must-win game against New England on Tuesday. “It was a one-run game and that gave us a cushion.”
Playing in the World Series was a far-off dream for Hatch and his teammates when their journey began in June, he said. Getting here wasn't easy and it included having to beat the Washington state defending champion, Mercer Island, twice. Last year, Mercer made the incredible journey to South Williamsport and the Series.
Hatch said he and his teammates were sometimes nervous before the games here on the international stage.
“We're handling it (the pressure) OK,” he said. “We get a little nervous before the games, but then we get out on the field and we just play.”
The biggest challenge for him and his teammates?
“We miss home,” he admitted. The team had not seen home for more than three weeks.
Dylan Davis, one of his teammates, said he's been awestruck about making history for Auburn.
“We have gone the farthest Auburn has ever gone,” Davis said.
Defeating last year's Northwest Region champion was not lost on Davis or his teammates.
“The biggest challenge has been the teams we've been facing,” he said. “I'm surprised how big this is – so many people come to watch the games.”
Another of the big hitters, Casey Manning, seemed to fully realize just how special his team's improbable journey has been.
“This has been so exciting – this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so we're living it up and enjoying it for now,” Manning said.
“Just playing on these fields, meeting the other teams and how good they are, this has been awesome.”
Hitting two home runs in the World Series ranked among his top memories, too.
“The second one I sort of jogged it out around the bases,” he said, admitting he savored the moment a little more that time.
But the journey has also meant a little homesickness for Manning and his 'mates, but the hometown fans have made it worthwhile.
“Being away has been kinda hard, but I have a lot of friends there rooting us on and I've talked to my grandparents a lot,” he explained.
Parents excited, too
Meanwhile, the parents have been on the road almost nonstop as well. According to some, they feel like they are living La Vida Loca.
Some parents admit they feel the pressure of being on the road since Aug. 3 and watching their children play in bigger and bigger tournaments.
“We realized we might have a chance to get here when we beat Mercer Island twice in states,” said Jeff Lacey, father of player Ryan Lacey. “After beating them, all this (reaching the World Series) seemed like a real possibility.”
He said the parents don't seem worried, but are relieved to have reached the pinnacle, with their children, of youth baseball. One thing makes it all worth it.
“The joy on my son's face,” Lacey said. “I'll take that with me my whole life and I didn't even think we would get out of districts.”
Meanwhile, baseball mom Kim O'Grady, whose son Dillon has helped power the team during the Series, said she has had a big dose of nerves each time her son's team plays.
“I always feel nauseous right before the games,” she admitted. “But once it gets started, I settle down. You always want your son to do well.”
She said reaching the Series has been surreal for everyone involved and she has seen changes taking place.
“The kids have been excited and we've all been in shock,”O'Grady said. “Our boys are growing up before our eyes.”
Coach Dale Wilson, father of player Robbie Wilson, said the feeling of awe set in quickly for him and others once they reached South Williamsport.
“It's amazing – just the magnitude of how many people come to watch the games,” the coach said. “It's also amazing how all the little kids come to watch the games and support their favorite teams. It's all been fun.”
Judy Wilson, Robbie's grandmother, said watching him pitch in Tuesday night's game made the trip extra-special.
“I had wanted to see something special for my birthday (which was Tuesday),” she said. “Robbie got to pitch and when he came off the mound, he ran to my son and was lifted off the ground. That was special – he hadn't got to pitch until then.”
Dubbed “The Littlest Reliever” by ESPN's SportsCenter, Wilson pitched the last out of Auburn's 9-5 win over New England.
Even Auburn manager Kai Nahaku said he was impressed by the experience.
“What impresses me is the whole size of the World Series,” he said. “It's watching the kids interact with other kids and teams from around this country and around the world. It's been about enjoying what you can get through hard work.”
Now that Auburn beat Texas, 7-4, on Wednesday, it must beat the Southwest champions again today. Kai Nahaku said he gives his team even chances of winning.
“I think both teams are pretty much the same (in strengths),” he said. “We have to score and we have to keep hitting the ball and playing good defense.
Coach Wilson said Auburn's boys are playing good team ball and stand a good chance to win again.
“I think the kids are loose, they have high energy and they appreciate where they are at,” Wilson said. “They have settled down and they are enjoying this (playing here).”
Eric Long, a reporter with the NorthcentralPA.com team, is covering the series for the Auburn Reporter.