PORTLAND, Ore. - The reigning diamond darlings of Dixie swooshed into the homeland of Nike a week ago and have once again emerged the goddesses of Little League softball.
The 8-6 triumph over Burbank, Calif., Wednesday in the World Series championship game was, for Warner Robins American, a true-life tale of dreams coming true, part two.
Their league's third trip to the World Series stage out West since 2002 proved fruitful for a second straight season as the Houston County kids staked their claim on their youth sport's grandest stage.
Perhaps it's time to plant one of the Beaver State's iconic Douglas firs beside the lone live oak that grows beyond the center-field fence at Field 6, their home ballfield off Snellgrove Drive.
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The wooden bleachers at Alpenrose Stadium that wrap around the stands from first base to third are bordered by two-foot-wide brick planters full of marigolds. The fluorescent-orange blooms almost matched the Southeast jerseys.
Even if the blooms made it look like a hometown touch, the end didn't come easy. Down 8-4 with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Californians cut the lead in half on a pair of hits.
Robins pitcher Hayley Tierce, on a 3-2 pitch with the tying run at the plate, whizzed a strike and caught the West's cleanup hitter looking to seal the victory. It was only fitting that Tierce was on the mound. She has cousins in the Portland hills.
"I think I died three times tonight," said Tierce's grandpa, Larry Johnson of Caruthers, Calif. "I told them if they made it we'd be here. ... She had just enough to put 'em away, but it was a team effort."
"The Georgia belles did it!" shouted Tierce's great aunt Pat Zirkle of nearby Hillsboro, Ore.
Warner Robins American broke on top 4-0 in the first inning thanks to five walks and a wild pitch by California starter Davina Del Castillo. The only hit in the inning was a liner to left by catcher Chelsea Whaley after second baseman Sierra Stella led off the game with a walk. The at-bat of the inning belonged to Tierce, a nine-pitch battle that included three foul-offs and ended in a walk that plated Stella with the first run.
In the California half of the first, after a pair of runners reached on walks with two out, Michelle Santiago smashed a drive toward the warning track in left. Warner Robins left fielder Peyton Stallworth turned and drifted back toward a patch of bunting and the Baskin-Robbins sign, drew a bead and, battling the sun, hauled in the out.
"I thought it might have gotten over her head," her dad Mike Stallworth said of the walloped fly ball. "I'm a proud papa right now."
In the bottom of the second, California carved into the lead and fired up what may have been the most vocal cheering section at the tournament. And on this afternoon, the Golden Staters had company. In some ways, it was Warner Robins against the world. Teams from New Jersey and Puerto Rico sat on the Burbank side and rooted on the purple-clad Southern Californians.
After a two-run triple rocketed into the right-field corner, cutting the lead in half, 4-2, the barking revved up in the stands above the California dugout.
"West Coast in the house, in the house, in the house! ... West Coast in the haaa-oooose!" barked the West's cheerer-in-chief, a parent in face paint who, needless to say, didn't exactly endear himself to the Georgia backers.
California was poised to score more, but with two out Warner Robins center fielder Amber Coy charged a bloop, slid to a knee, and made a basket grab to halt the threat.
In the bottom of the third, California pushed a runner to third with two out, but a third straight inning-ending defensive feat kept it 4-2. Second baseman Stella, who shined in the field in the Southeastern Region finale earlier this month, scooted to her right, back-handed a roller and winged it to first.
In the top of the fourth, after a leadoff walk to Kayla Quakenbush and a pop-out, Stella punched a dribbler past a diving third baseman to put two runners aboard. Whaley's rope to left scored Amber Coy, who pinch-ran for Quakenbush, making it 5-2.
An inning later, Cox started the Robins fifth with a single to left. Killebrew, who'd been cut down at home on a collision to end the third, then lasered a single to left. Coy pinch-ran for Killebrew and Robins third baseman Taylor Brown drew a walk to fill the bases for Quakenbush, who slapped an RBI-single past third for a 6-2 lead.
MC Tucker rapped a single to short for an RBI and a five-run Robins lead.
The bases were still full when leadoff sparkplug Stella stepped in. While she batted, Tucker broke for second and got caught in a run down, allowing Brown to zip home with the eighth Georgia run.
At that point, the Houston County kids had amassed 10 hits, eight more than they'd mustered the night before in a 1-0 semifinal edging of Ohio. During a Wednesday morning practice, Warner Robins manager Roger Stella told them, "If you don't hit the ball, you're gonna lose tonight."
The night before, one of their grandmothers, only half joking following the narrow escape against Ohio, said, "Y'all might want to put some of those bats in the bed with you tonight."
Six outs from the championship with two California runners aboard, Robins first baseman Lamb crashed into her team's dugout fence as she made a highlight-reel grab. With Lamb on the ground with an injured left knee, Jade Teetsel tagged up and raced home to make it 8-3. Santiago's sacrifice-line-out to left trimmed the Georgia lead to four.
California added the two runs in the sixth, but Warner Robins' lead was too much to overcome.
"They didn't get here by being sissies. They got here because they were tough," said the Georgia pitcher Tierce's cousin, Sherry Reed, who lives in Portland.
In the days before they boarded a plane for Oregon, Roger Stella spoke privately of the almost daunting task that lay ahead of the team, of following in their own footsteps and re-climbing youth softball's peak.
"I told them this at the beginning of all-stars, I said, 'Look, it sucks, but that team last year didn't do you any favors.' But, you know, they seem more focused," the 36-year-old manager said at the time.
"It kind of scared me when they won state. ... Last year the girls were all jumping up and down. This year the girls won, threw their gloves in the dugout, went out there and shook hands," Stella said. "I think it's almost like, 'Win the World Series or you fail.' Which is ... ridiculous. Everybody doesn't just go to the World Series. Everybody thinks this is easy. It's not easy."
And only one is left standing. The International City has a world champion again.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.
In the top of the first, Warner Robins loaded the bases with no outs. Hayley Tierce walked to drive in Sierra Stella for a 1-0 lead. Melissa Cox also walked with the bases loaded to bring in Chelsea Whaley for a 2-0 lead. California then pulled starting pitcher Davina Del Castillo after she walked four of the first five batters. Jade Teetsel came on in relief of Del Castillo. Ashley Killebrew grounded out to short for the first out, driving in Avery Lamb for a 3-0 lead. Taylor Brown struck out. Tierce scored on a wild pitch for a 4-0 lead. Amber Coy walked to put runners on first and third. Peyton Stallworth grounded out to first.
In the bottom of the first, Teetsel and Del Castillo walked to put two runners on with two outs for California. Michelle Santiago hit a fly ball to deep left field, but Stallworth made a running catch to end the inning.
Stella grounded out to lead off the top of the second. Chelsea Whaley lined out to left field. Lamb grounded out.
In the bottom of the second, Denise Daniel struck out to lead off for California. Bridgette Pisa walked. Lilianna Flores singled to shallow right field. Tori Talavera tripled to deep right field to drive in both runners and cut the lead to 4-2. Delaney Nicol popped out to the shortstop for the second out. Teetsel walked. Kaitlin Okimoto hit a pop fly to shallow center field that was snared by Coy to end the inning.
For Warner Robins in the top of the third, Tierce struck out. Cox reached, but was thrown out at second on a Killebrew grounder. Killebrew stole second. Taylor Brown reached first on a shallow fly ball to right field, but Killebrew was tagged out trying to score from second base.
In the bottom of the third, Santiago singled with one out. Daniel grounded out, and Santiago moved to third. Pisa grounded out to second base for the third out.
In the top of the fourth, Kayla Quakenbush walked to lead off and Coy came on to pinch run. MC Tucker popped out to short. Stella hit an infield single, moving Quakenbush to second. Whaley singled to the gap in left-center field, scoring a run to make it 5-2. Lamb hit a ground ball to third and Stella was forced out for the second out. Tierce struck out.
Kayla Dighero grounded out to lead off the bottom of the fourth for California. Jordan Meltzer walked. Nicol struck out, and Meltzer was thrown out stealing second.
In the top of the fifth, Cox singled to left-center field. Killebrew singled to left field, and Coy came on to pinch run. Brown walked to load the bases. Quakenbush singled to drive in Cox for a 6-2 lead. Tucker singled to score Coy for a 7-2 lead. California changed pitchers. sending Del Castillo back to the mound. Tucker was caught in a rundown and was tagged out, but Brown came home to score for an 8-2 lead. Stella walked. Lamb lined out to left field.
Teetsel and Okimoto walked to lead off the bottom of the fifth for California. Del Castillo popped out to Lamb in foul territory, but Lamb hit the fence and dropped her glove in pain. Teetsel tagged up and scored on the play to cut the lead to 8-3, and Okimoto moved to third. Santiago lined out to left field for the second out, and Okimoto tagged up and scored to make it 8-4. Akins singled to shallow right field. Pisa lined out to Lamb at first base.
Tierce led off the top of the sixth with a fly out to left. Cox popped out to the pitcher. Killebrew walked. Brown popped out to the shortstop.
For California in the bottom of the sixth, Flores struck out. Talavero grounded out to Tierce. Nicol walked. Teetsel doubled, moving Nicol to third. Okimoto singled up the middle, scoring both runners to make it 8-6. Del Castillo struck out to end the game.
For more on this game, come back to Macon.com or pick up Thursday's Telegraph. -->