WARNER ROBINS -- When the Little League Southeast Park played host to its first game a little more than two years ago, dozens of pairs of young eyes got a little bigger as they walked around the sparkling complex that nobody had yet christened.
Playing in a Little League regional was always a goal. Playing in this shrine then became a dream for any youngster in the area playing Little League softball or baseball.
And for Warner Robins American Little League, it has become something of an expectation, considering the league had a team in the regional for three straight summers before an interruption in 2010.
Now, a new set of 13 players from Warner Robins West will finally get to cross the white lines and play in the park that has mesmerized visitors from West Virginia to Florida when the Little League Baseball Southeastern Regional Tournament begins play Friday morning.
“I’ve been dreaming of playing on that field for a long time,” said Warner Robins’ Tyler Mayfield, unofficially speaking for hundreds of local youth players. “It’s a really good opportunity to be able to play on that field. It’s just going to be amazing to be able to do it.”
Warner Robins won the state tournament at Murphey Candler Park in Dunwoody.
“It was a nice facility,” Jackson Will said. “But not quite that nice.”
South Carolina and West Virginia open the tournament at 10 a.m., with Georgia taking on North Carolina in the day’s final game, at 7 p.m. The locals then turn around and play Florida at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Manager Martin Pinckney wouldn’t have minded a different draw.
“Boy, we’re in a tough pool,” he said. “Wow. You look at it from the tradition perspective. North Carolina, Florida and Alabama traditionally carry really good teams here, not that the others don’t.
“It’s going to be a tough fight.”
But one Warner Robins expects to be up for.
What is impressive about this year’s contingent from Warner Robins is that it is a completely new team, the league having split up the all-star teams again.
A year ago, East topped West 10-5 in the District 5 championship, went 6-0 in state and more than quadrupled opponents’ scoring 66-14 and then went 5-0 in the regional with a 33-14 run advantage en route to another trip to Williamsport and the Little League World Series.
Dillon Toms and Logan Morris were the only East returnees this summer, but West made sure there’d be completely new blood playing on after it dominated the District 5 tournament with four wins by a 78-7 margin.
The state tournament was the same story, West taking all six games by a 76-7 spread with four shutouts in six games.
So a whole new team from Warner Robins pretty much matched what an experienced postseason team from Warner Robins had done. The East won the district in 2010 but went 1-3 in the state tournament before following up in 2011 with the World Series trip. Thus, it’s almost impossible to make many comparisons, other than statistical, between this year and last year. Pinckney noted some current team members were on squads in younger divisions that have had postseason success.
But they’re playing like heady veterans.
Leyton Pinckney has a 1.38 ERA in eight innings with 15 strikeouts, and Kody Winner owns a 0.00 ERA through 10 innings.
The team batted .432 in the state tournament, led by Chase Padgett’s .700 and Pinckney’s .643. Cameron Jones bats ninth, and he checked in with a .444 average in state as Warner Robins belted 18 home runs.
The players may be new, but the stats are pretty familiar for a Warner Robins regional team. Indeed, a full six-inning game has been the exception for a group that has won 10 tournament games by an average score of 15.4-1.4, thanks to strength in all three phases of the game. A nine-homer district game and five postseason shutouts indicate that, but Martin Pinckney doesn’t point to a specific physical strength of the team.
“It’s our depth, just in pure talent, hitting and pitching,” he said. “We can pull any of these 13 kids and any of them can hit a home run, any of them can blast a double. We’ve got six or seven guys that can all pitch, that you can count on them.”
And such versatility is huge in the regional, with pitch counts and mandatory playing time. Such rules can play havoc when things don’t quite go as planned.
“I’d say that the biggest part of our team, and we hope this will play out for us, is pure depth,” Pinckney said. “When we do put that 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th guy in, we really don’t miss a beat at all.”