TOCCOA — They marched into this ballpark in a railway hollow off the Appalachian Foothills Parkway a week ago with uber-engineered bats in their hands and old-fashioned history slung over their shoulders.
Their predecessors had reached the summit of kid-league hardball in Georgia for two years running, and as darkness fell Friday, with their own ascent complete, the crowning moment coming on a game-ending strikeout, they too grabbed a championship banner. Then took off running with it.
After topping Columbus Northern 7-3 in front of 650 or so spectators at Doyle Street Park, they took their outfield victory lap in unison, a high-stepping gang of crimson and blue racing toward yet another — a third straight — Southeast Regional tournament.
This one, a week from now in West Virginia.
“Get the bus fired up! We’re going back one more time!” Warner Robins manager Randy Jones hollered in the celebratory aftermath.
Warner Robins took a commanding 6-0 lead in the second inning.
Starting pitcher Justin Jones took over from there, striking out nine and hurling the game of the tourney with pinpoint control and a sweeping curveball. Jones, one of three returning players from the 2008 state champs, also belted a solo homer, doubled and scored three times.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said afterward. “The second one in a row for me.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, before heading off for a team-tradition chow down at a Sonic up the road, their manager Jones took a knee and had them gather round.
“I hope you remember tonight and tomorrow night for the rest of your lives,” the coach said. “It sure is good.”
And Friday night it was.
Warner Robins took a 1-0 lead in the first after Justin Jones reached on an error and later scored on Conner Smith’s liner to center. Five more scored in the second after a leadoff triple to right by Kyle King. Trey Maddox and Jones drove in runs, and Harley Hunt plated two with a single to right.
Blake Jackson, who along with Justin Jones has won four state titles — every year since he was 9 in two different age groups — slammed the door in relief. He struck out Northern’s leadoff hitter to end it after Columbus rallied for two runs in the sixth and had a runner at second.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of people behind you thinking, ‘What is gonna happen next?’”
One could ask the same for the wildly successful Warner Robins program.
“We’re pretty even teams,” Columbus manager Randy Morris said. “And they were the best team tonight. ... Their team played with swagger and we played tight.”
But the Muscogee Countians also played it with sportsmanship.
Warner Robins manager Jones had nothing but praise for them.
“I really honestly thought that team was nearly unbeatable,” he said.
“And I will not forget the class that they showed when I was coaching third base. Their third baseman comes over and they’re down 7-1, probably looking at a loss, and he says to me, ‘Coach, y’all have got a great team.’”