WARNER ROBINS — Cars and trucks with windows adorned in bright red and blue paint proclaimed the various state champions Wednesday afternoon in the parking lot at Little League Southeast Park.
Team by team, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia bounded into the administration building, brimming with excitement as they prepared to have their team photos taken just a day before the Little League Softball Southeastern Region Tournament. Some knew early on they would make it to this point. Others reveled in the challenge.
Each team has its own unique story, one that it’s ready to share with Middle Georgia as the tournament begins.
ALABAMA — Phenix City Little League
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Most of the players on the Phenix City team have been playing together since they were 10 years old.
“We don’t have lots of drama,” Josie Kittrell said.
They sing and dance to “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, which they say is their team song.
They come from just on the other side of the Georgia border, and theirs is a town where everyone knows everyone.
“We’re a group of sisters,” Kittrell said.
Manager Heath Corbett said the girls “are a gritty team.”
His favorite saying to the girls is “110 percent for 20 seconds, every pitch.”
FLORIDA — New Tampa Little League
Within a matter of minutes of New Tampa winning the Florida state softball championship, team manager Lou Pastore’s voice mail was full.
He listened to the congratulatory messages, deleted them and went to dinner. By the time he was done eating, his voice mail was full again.
New Tampa Little League is “very embraced by the community,” in the suburbs of north Tampa, Pastore said.
He said the state win was a first for the league, which has been in existence for 12 years.
“To win state was definitely a high note for everybody,” he said.
The girls are excited to be in Warner Robins.
“Excited and nervous,” Meagan Bell said. “My stomach was hurting for the past week.”
Before each game, the girls draw a heart on Pastore’s hand. And after each game, “we usually start to cry, we’re so happy,” said Carlee Jacobs.
Pastore said all the girls bring something unique to the team.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “You don’t have a picture until each piece is locked in place. That’s our team.”
New Tampa so far is undefeated. And if you ask them, they plan to keep it that way.
GEORGIA — Warner Robins American Little League
With the regionals being held in Warner Robins, the local team had one thing to say about its hometown.
“It’s hot,” said Taylor Brown.
To beat the heat, the girls usually practice early every morning.
And their cheerleader is manager Roger Stella.
“He always knows what to say to make us feel good,” Taylor said.
The team feels pretty confident. Although a true leader hasn’t emerged, nicknames have.
Brown is “T’nay nay,” Stella calls his daughter Sierra “Tattoo.” Kayla Quackenbush is called “Tushie.” Ashley Killebrew is “Big Ash,” although she wrinkles her nose at it.
Perhaps the most interesting is Melissa Cox, who teammates call “Pickle.” It’s a nickname she has had since starting a pickle fight at a restaurant.
NORTH CAROLINA — Wilkes County Little League
The hard workers from North Carolina aren’t strangers to winning state championships. Three were members of the 10-and-under team that won the state tournament a few years ago.
Allison Mitchell, Tristan Johnson and Kasay Nichols were on that team.
“We’re a well-rounded team,” manager Natasha Brown said.
Brown is the pep-talker, while coach Larry Johnson is the enforcer.
When he talks, “you have to do it now,” said Emily Visnic.
The facilities they play on are much smaller than the fields at Warner Robins.
“It’s not even close,” Visnic said.
This is the second team Wilkes County has sent to the 11-12-year-old regionals.
“Our county has been blessed,” said Larry Johnson.
SOUTH CAROLINA — Blue Ridge Little League
Blue Ridge was formed by combining two rival leagues.
Jason Justice, manager of the team, said his team “is a very good hitting team.”
He does warn that what they think, they say.
Their favorite cheer is “Go Meat,” which is from a commercial. When in Greer, S.C., they like to eat Mexican.
Although former rivals, the girls seem to be best friends now that they’ve teamed up to try to end up in Oregon at the World Series.
“They are the best team that’s ever come out of the area,” said Justice.
TENNESSEE — Daniel Boone Little League
It didn’t look good for Daniel Boone. Going into the final inning of the Tennessee state championship game, the team was down 5-0. But the girls rallied and made a comeback, scoring seven runs to win 7-5.
“Most everyone on the team contributed (to the win) in some way,” manager Tonya Jenkins said.
It is Daniel Boone’s first trip to the softball regionals.
“The girls of course they’re overwhelmed,” Jenkins said. “Everybody (in Gray, Tenn.,) is just really excited for these girls.”
The team raised $7,000 to travel to Warner Robins. The girls sold icees, had a garage sale and asked for donations.
Many of them have played together since T-ball. They wear red socks with black dots, turning their legs into giant lady bugs.
The girls say they are very competitive, and they know they have their work cut out for them.
“We’re going to have to compete really hard,” Jaclyn Jenkins said.
VIRGINIA — Bridgewater Little League
Bridgewater feel it has been underestimated in its bid to win the region championship.
The team had to play out of the losers’ bracket to clinch the Virginia state title.
“We had to show our hearts,” Olivia Swope said.
After the winning game, the team went home and rode a fire truck around their small town, spraying silly string everywhere.
“We like to have fun, but we like to play hard,” Natalie Helmick said.
The girls says they are great friends — like sisters — and they encourage each other no matter what.
“Even if a girl hits a hard ground ball and gets out, we still cheer for her in the dugout,” Helmick said.
Manager Kevin Helmick said the team is “ready for a dogfight.”
“I’m not sure if all the teams that are here faced the adversity that we have,” he said.
WEST VIRGINIA — Barboursville Little League
Barboursville beat out West Virginia’s two-time defending state champ to make it to the regional tournament.
The team comes into the tournament undefeated.
“We’re just solid all the way around,” manager Rich Wetzel said. “We have a pretty good pitching staff. We play good defense. We’re pretty well-rounded.”
The team may play so well together because many of the girls have been playing together for six or seven years.
“They all get along real well as a group, which is surprising at their age,” Wetzel said.
The girls say they are a tight-knit group.
“We like to have fun before and after the game, but during the game we like to get serious,” said Jenna Marsh.
Pool parties are the best way for the girls to refresh after a game.
Before the games, the girls pray.
Their plan for the tournament this week?
Said Allie Bennett, “Win!”
To contact Jennifer Burk, call 256-9705. To contact Angela Woolen, call 923-5650.