It has accomplished it before, and now it is seeking to do it again. A trip to the Little League World Series is not just a dream or a hope but rather the goal for the 11-12-year-old Warner Robins American Little League softball team.
The next step on the journey will be the Southeast Regional starting Thursday in Warner Robins. A regional title would earn the team a bid to the Little League World Series starting Aug. 12 in Portland, Oregon.
But according to team spokesman Scott Lamb, the players should not set their sights on simply playing in the regional; they should expect to win another title, emulating the accomplishments of the 2009 and 2010 squads.
“When you’re playing at your home field, sometimes playing in the stadium can be the ultimate goal for the kids that live in Warner Robins, but in reality, you really want to win the whole thing, which is going to Portland and winning the World Series,” Lamb said. “You gotta stay focused on what the main goal is, and that’s to be the champion at the end of all the tournaments.”
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The lofty goals are warranted. Warner Robins breezed through its competition en route to the regionals, outscoring its opponents 78-4 in seven games in the district and state tournaments.
In the District 5 tournament, Warner Robins needed only two games to grab the title after earning a first-round bye, beating Western 19-0 and 5-1.
“(Western) made errors in the first game, and then the second game, they played error-free softball and made it a lot closer game,” Lamb said. “They just pitched a lot better in the second game. We played well in both games, but it makes a difference when they give you free runs.”
The state tournament, played in Columbus, began with another dominant effort -- a 21-0 victory over Athens. But then Warner Robins suffered its only loss, a 2-1 decision to Columbus.
“We chalked that first one up as a character-building game,” Lamb said with a laugh. “All good teams have to go through a little adversity, so we’re hoping that’s our adversity, and we rose to the occasion when we had to.”
In order to achieve its goals, Warner Robins was forced to win three straight games. And it did so in dominant fashion. A 10-0 shutout of Hart County landed Warner Robins in the championship game against Columbus. Needing to beat Columbus twice in order to win the state title, Warner Robins avenged its loss with 12-0 and 10-1 victories to snatch the state title and a bid to the regionals. After the loss, which Lamb largely attributed to poor hitting, Warner Robins outscored its opponents 32-1.
“Obviously, they responded really good,” manager Roger Stella said. “We kind of entered it, ‘You don’t have to go undefeated.’ It’s a double-elimination, so we didn’t really sweat the loss too much. We knew we had to get beat again, so we didn’t really worry about it too bad.”
Warner Robins now turns its focus to the regional, which features a double-elimination format between seven states. Stella’s team will face Florida at 5 p.m. on Thursday. With the team’s past performances, Lamb and Stella feel confident, yet cautious.
“I think to do anything well, you have to be confident. We’re confident in our abilities, but you never know what’s going to come,” Lamb said. “It’s not like you can have an advanced scouting reports on these teams.”
Meanwhile, Stella practices confidence but does not get ahead of himself. He recognizes the accomplishments of the other teams in the field.
“We’re confident but not cocky. Every team here has done the same thing we have so far,” Stella said. “So, there’s no reason for us to feel more confident than the other teams. They’re at the same stage as we are.”
One of its most prominent role players, Maddie Langevin, leads the team in batting as a pinch-hitter with a batting averaging of .714 in seven plate appearances. In those appearances, she registered three singles, a double, a triple and eight RBI. As a team, Warner Robins is batting .370.
But the team pitches well, too. With two arms in its stable, Emma Williams and Rylee Lamb, the team boasts an ERA of 0.353 and has allowed only two earned runs. With such dominant success, Stella ensures his team does not become overconfident and keeps his players hungry by staying on them at all times.
“We kind of do the whole cliche, ‘Take one inning at a time.’ We kind of taught them at the very beginning that whether you’re up by 10 or down by 10, we play the same way,” Stella said. “If we’re up by 10, and they start slacking off, we get onto them. If they’re down by 10, and they slack off, we get onto them.”
And Stella knows what it takes; he has won two World Series titles. Stella managed the 2009 and 2010 championship teams, when his older daughter and Lamb’s older daughter were on the team. This year, the two men’s younger daughters will be striving to follow in their older sisters’ footsteps. Lamb believes there’s “a little added pressure” for the girls, Rylee Lamb and Raegan Stella.
Even though Roger Stella has experienced the World Series twice, he doesn’t believe his experiences will be much of an advantage for his team.
“If I was playing in the game, maybe, because I have been there before. But all these girls, they have never been there before, so it’ll be brand new to them,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll be an advantage at all.”
If anything, his ability to stay calm because of his experience might play a small role throughout the regional process.
“I guess the whole ‘stay calm’ type deal probably helps me a little bit being there before,” Roger Stella said. “I might can stay a little more calm than the first time I went, but I promise you, when the game starts, I’ll be just as anxious as the first time.”
The Warner Robins roster Taylor Corley, Bobbi Poff, Lauren Ross, Raegan Stella, Rylee Lamb, Langevin, Alice Thomas, Jenna Thomas, Kaylee Brown, Ellie Williams, Emma Williams, Olivia Brown and Makayla Krepps. Assistant coaches are Brian Brown and David Williams.
For the team as a whole, a World Series victory would be “a sense of achievement,” according to Scott Lamb. But for Roger Stella, whose daughter attended the 2009 and 2010 titles when she was 7 or 8, another experience in Portland would be special.
“It’s gonna be really, really cool,” he said. “She’s kind of dreamed about this ever since she was about seven or so, seven or eight when her sister went. So far, this has been the biggest dream she has had, so hopefully we can pull it off.”