When the Phenix City Cal Ripken 9U All-Star team lost a heartbreaker in 11 innings Sunday, head coach Matt Phillips was certain the team’s run had come to a close. An unexpected development, however, proved that wouldn’t be the case.
The Phenix City squad held its own against Westside in the semifinals of the state tournament. Phillips’ son Alex threw the first three innings, and the game soon became a defensive battle. Phenix City pitcher Cameron Norton thwarted a Westside scoring opportunity late in the goings, quickly snagging a one-out line drive before firing the ball toward third to end the inning.
As the innings piled up and the sweat accumulated, it was clear both sides were wearing down. Eventually, defensive mishaps sank Phenix City’s ship headed for Hattiesburg, Miss., and the Southwest Regional Tournament.
Or so it seemed.
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On Sunday night, Chris Rogers, the president of Phenix City’s league, sent word that the All-Star team might not be done after all. According to Phillips, the state commissioner and the tournament director in Hattiesburg had officially invited Phenix City to the tournament, making the gut-wrenching loss a fruitful one after all.
The invitation was a step in the right direction, but Phillips, who slept through Rogers’ late-night messages, now had to get the thumbs up from the parents and players. The team’s parents met on Monday while the boys played on a nearby football field. All offered their approval.
Phillips then called his team back together to let them in on the situation.
“I asked them if they had fun on Sunday, and they all said yes,” Phillips said. “I asked if they wanted to keep playing baseball, and they all said yes. I said, ‘Well, why don’t we go to Mississippi and play some baseball?’”
They responded to the question accordingly.
“Their eyes got real big, and they all started hootin’ and hollerin’,” Phillips said. “They were all ecstatic. It was pretty neat.”
Phillips’ unexpected good news was a reason for the team to celebrate. Soon after, it was time for everyone to get to work.
Phillips -- who was a third baseman at Hardaway when it played Columbus in the 1996 state championship series -- turned his attention back to baseball and getting the team prepared. The 10 players going to Mississippi practiced to improve before taking on opponents from several different states. Their parents, meanwhile, quickly began raising money for the trip.
“I reflect back, especially back when I was a kid. I never made it this far through All-Stars,” Phillips said. “For them to experience this as 9 year olds is pretty awesome.”
Phillips said the plan is to leave Wednesday morning on a five-and-a-half hour drive west. Play in the double elimination tournament begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.
The Phenix City 9U team appeared down and out after falling to Westside, but with a second chance now in tow, Phillips wants his players to soak up the moment.
“I know a lot of these kids have watched baseball on TV,” Phillips said. “They see the Little League World Series, and they understand they’re getting to experience what those kids get to experience. I think that’s pretty cool and exciting. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope we do well.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports