Saturday, July 23, 2011

Epic Battle for State Championship Goes Down to the Wire!

In an absolutely epic battle of two North Carolina All-Star Little League Powerhouses, the MARA MOJO (Cooper's team) faced the fearsome, Porter Ridge Pirates in the North Carolina State Championship. The Pirates were a hand picked "Super Team" (for those of you Friday Night Lights watchers). They essentially combined two All-Star teams and added a couple of other players from travel ball to build the equivalent of the NY Yankees of little league. These were all 120 pound, corn-fed, country strong 10-year olds. On different occasions, all but one of their players had hit one over the fence. This was in contrast to our team which had two players who had hit it over the fence in their lifetime.

We had played Porter Ridge 4 times up to this point, and were 2 - 2 against them. Without taking you through the long hard road to the state championship, we had played 12 games to get to this game. We were in the winners bracket which meant that our opponent had to beat us twice. We all knew Porter Ridge was capable of this, but wanted to beat them in the first game and celebrate early.

The coach decided to start Cooper in the State Championship. As his Dad, I was a wreck with nerves despite only watching. The state championship this year was on our home field, which made it even more special. Of all the places in North Carolina, we were playing in front of our home crowd (the same place Cooper and I had spent countless hours practicing the last few years).

We were the home team and the little league equivalent of Jeter, A-Rod, and Texiara were up to bat to start the game for Porter Ridge. First batter goes to a full count, fouls off 3 pitches before getting fooled on a change up by Cooper - 1 out. The next batter fastball, change up, cutter - 3 pitch strike out. The next batter fast ball, fast ball, cutter - 3 pitch out. Coop had just struck out the side! The place went nuts and was absolutely electric. Coop went on to pitch the game of his life in State Championship and pitched 4 shut out innings and gave up 2 hits. By rule, since he had pitched 2 innings in the previous game, he could only pitch 4 innings in this game. MARA went into the sixth with a 2-0 lead. They say the hardest three outs in baseball are the last three. That proved to be true this night. Porter Ridge scored 4 in the sixth and won 4-2. After a brilliant performance by our team in the first 5 innings, we were left crushed with disappointment. Did we just choke the state championship away?

We now had to play Porter Ridge again and this time they had all the momentum and we were pretty down. But the boys battled and we were once again  ahead with a precarious 2 run lead headed into the bottom of the last inning. But Porter Ridge would not go down easy. Hit, Walk, Hit, Hit, Walk. It was now 3-2, the bases were loaded, there was one out, and their best hitter at the plate. Was this really going to happen? Back to back crushing collapses? Why not just rip out my heart and stomp on it -- I think that might feel better.

Then the coach, seeing the nerves on our pitcher who had just thrown 4 straight balls to walk the bases loaded, decided to make a change. He saved one inning of eligibility with Cooper. But this was a heck of a time to come in. If Porter Ridge even makes contact, they probably tie, if they get a hit, they win the game.

At the risk of sounding like a biased, over-the-top dad-about-his-own-son, Coop was made for this moment. Coop can be frustrating because he is a knucklehead. He sometimes is still immature and wants to goof around and have fun at practice when coaches want to be all business. On the flip side, he blows bubbles when he pitches and doesn't get too rattled in the big moments. When I asked him what he thought when the coach asked him to come in the game at that time he said, " I was excited the coach wanted me to pitch." That was it. Almost like he was oblivious to the fact that it was the state championship, the bases were loaded and we had only a one run lead.

And while I wish I could write that he struck out the next two batters, that is not at all what happened.

Cooper's first pitch is fouled off and inches from being an easy pop up out but goes out of play. His second pitch is drilled hard to centerfield. The centerfield makes a good play and catches the hard hit liner. The runner from third tags up, the centerfielder puts everything he can on it and it bounces at the pitchers mound. But then it took a magical MARA MOJO bounce off the mound and right towards home plate. The 120 pound man- child is running lights out at our 85 pound catcher. I don't know how our catcher keeps focused on the ball knowing this kid is about to literally knock him upsidedown at home. The ball comes in a half second before the runner. The catcher grabs it and tags the runner. The runner blows up the catcher. The ump is looking everywhere for the ball. On his back I see the catcher with both hands around his mitt shaking and showing the ump he has the ball. Game Over! MARA MOJO wins on a fly out - throw - tag out at home.

I honestly think if we tried to do this play 1,000 times again, we might only do it right a handful of times. So many things have to go right for this to happen in little league, but the baseball gods were with us on this magical night. Cooper's MARA MOJO were State Champs and now move on to regionals. I will write a report on Regionals next week.


Dave Fuhriman said...

Classic exciting recap, Austin. I wish I were there just to watch your reaction on that last play.


nonni-sings2u said...

Hip hip hooray! Have a great time at regionals. We will be cheering you on from California.