With the Virginia Little League state championship hanging in the balance, the West Springfield American 10- to 11-year-old All-Stars had their opponents right where they wanted them.
Any sensible observer, however, would have told you otherwise. After all, Vienna National’s Sam Junco had just blasted a go-ahead home run, swinging momentum fully in Vienna’s favor in the waning moments of extra innings.
But that observer wouldn’t have been familiar with this West Springfield team, which seems to reach its greatest success only when the odds are stacked against it. When Sam Freeborne approached the plate following Connor Copeland’s game-tying base hit in the bottom of the eighth inning, West Springfield fans scooted to their edge of their seats in anticipation of another comeback, which the team has made its trademark this summer.
Sure enough, with the score knotted at 5-5, Sam Freeborne let fly a single to left field, sending Brian Bachman home for the title-clinching run. It set off an improbable celebration that came in the wake of a double-header in scorching mid-summer heat. Just 45 minutes before the start of a July 24 championship game, the West Springfield boys had overcome Tuckahoe, 7-6, in come-from-behind, extra-inning fashion.
“They hardly made any errors all day,” said Greg McIntyre, West Springfield coach. “The team is incredible. I’ve been coaching Little League since 1998, All-Stars since 2004, and this is by far the best team I’ve ever been around. They’re just really talented.”
The win tasted especially sweet in light of what happened in last year’s state title contest. The team fell behind in extra innings in that game, too; except wasn’t able to muster a comeback.
This year’s victory made the team just the third West Springfield Little League squad to win the state title at the 10-11 age level. More importantly, it catapulted them to the Tournament of Southeastern Champions, the regional tournament never before won by a West Springfield team.
Although West Springfield didn’t hoist the trophy in Greenville, N.C., this past week, it made it to Tuesday’s semifinal — as far as any West Springfield 10-11 team has ever been. The team’s run came to an end against Florida’s Plant City All-Stars in a dramatic 8-6 contest that, of course, went to eight innings.
Even more unsurprising than the length of the game was the fact that it came on the wings of a double-header, as West Springfield had defeated North Carolina’s Bull City All-Stars, 7-4, earlier in the day. That quarterfinal matchup was a tie-breaker, meaning West Springfield was playing an extra game compared to its well-rested Florida counterparts. Fatigue compounded with a rule forbidding teams from using the same pitchers in back-to-back games on the same day, further put Virginia at a disadvantage in the semifinal.
West Springfield players weren’t complaining, though. They were just eager to keep playing.
“Most of us were just ready to go and play two games,” Copeland said. “We were ready to keep on playing baseball and feeling good. I think the best part was that we felt better because we played a game before them and still made it tough.”
West Springfield would not have even arrived to that point if it hadn’t been for another dramatic come-from-behind win during the initial pool play round. Before beating Georgia, 5-2, the team found itself facing an early 5-0 deficit against North Carolina. Not to be deterred, the Virginia boys chipped away at the lead with runs in each of the remaining innings, eventually going on to win 13-6. True to character, it was a collective effort marked by hits from eight different players.
According to catcher Brian Bachman, the team’s resilience lies in its ability to stay mentally grounded in the task at-hand without worrying about the scoreboard.
“We just stay positive and never give up,” Bachman said.
Although the team’s parents are used to the act by now, they aren’t as steely as their kids when the pressure’s on. The nervous feeling in the stands in late-game situations this summer has led parents to dub their team the “Cardiac Kids.”
“When they’re down, you just see a complete team effort,” said Christine Bachman, Brian’s mother. “Everybody comes in and plays a big part. If somebody has a bad day, somebody else steps up and picks him up. I’ve seen so much growth in them between last year and this year. Where they might lose their cool last year or just get down in the dumps, this year they just catch their breath and say, ‘If our pitchers don’t have it today, our bats are going to go up.’”
West Springfield ended its regionals run at Elm Street Park with a record of 3-2, bringing its overall All-Star record this year to 17-2. The team’s 28 wins in All-Star play gives them the most wins during a two-year span by any West Springfield team in history.