A winning tradition brings with it a side effect: the pressure to keep winning.
And nobody faces that pressure like Northern Little League’s 11-12-year-old All-Stars, who open play in the state baseball tournament at 1 p.m. today against Warner Robins Little League in Columbus. Warner Robins has won the last three state titles — advancing all the way to a Little League World Series championship in 2007.
Northern is no stranger to big games, having played in three state title games in the past six years, winning two of them and of course capturing its own World Series championship in 2006.
That year, Northern defeated Warner Robins 4-0 to win the state crown. The team then rolled past five teams in the Southeast Regional — shutting out Alabama 11-0 and Florida 5-0 — to move on to the World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
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There, Northern beat Beaverton, Ore., 7-3 to win the U.S. championship, then stunned Kawaguchi City of Japan 2-1 to claim the title. Kyle Carter, who now plays for Columbus High, was the winning pitcher.
The current Northern team doesn’t have to be reminded of that victory.
“It can be a heavy load playing at Northern because of what people expect,” said 13-year-old pitcher Jacob Pate.
“Yeah,” added catcher Blake Hicks, 12. “You don’t want to disappoint people.”
Team manager Randy Morris, who led that world title team, said he knows his players want to win. He hopes they don’t feel stress or like they must live up to the accomplishments of others.
“Every team is different,” Morris said. “We just want the boys to play hard and do their best.”
Morris does tell all of his teams the same thing he told the team that won it all: “We take it one game at a time. We don’t look past the next game.”
Some of the players from the world championship team will visit practice and help out. “It’s an inspiration,” Jacob Pate said. “It’s great they care.”
Morris would not make a comparison between this team and past champions. His current team is 5-0 and has had little difficulty reaching that mark.
Northern beat American 19-3 to win the District 8 Championship. Northern then crushed the Sumter Area team 20-2 and 26-1 to advance to the state tournament.
Following those wins, Scot Graddick, the manager of the Sumter Area team, told the Americus Times-Recorder that Northern was an “incredible team.”
“They have outstanding pitching, and every ball they hit was on a line — it was just a shot,” Graddick told reporter Chris Whitaker. “They hit it harder than any group of kids I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think our kids are used to seeing anything like that ever.”
Graddick said Northern is a “well-coached team and they’re big.”
Besides Jacob and Blake, members of the team include Kobi Buglioli, Knox Carter, Jack Copley, Zac Cravens, Troy Gilliland, Mathew Lang, Jalen Latta, Brandon Pugh, Cason Sizemore and Jack Tanner.
Assisting Morris is coach Donnie Coulter.
Asked why Northern has done so well through the years, Morris replied, “Terrific players.”
“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “The talent has been there. We just have to mold it.”
The players said there is another reason. It’s Morris.
“He is very intense at practice,” Blake said. “He expects a lot. That carries over to the games. He is a great teacher of baseball — you really learn the game.”
“He makes you work hard but the hard work pays off,” Jacob Pate said.
Blake said playing for the state championship is going to be a “fun experience.”
“Even more so if we win,” Jacob said.
Jacob said playing in the state tournament will be exciting, but for him there will be a difference between playing in the tournament this season and last season: “I’m not as nervous.”
The team Northern will be playing today also knows about the pressure to win. Warner Robins has eliminated Northern the past two seasons — 7-3 in last season’s title game and 2-0 the season before.
“It’s time for a little revenge,” Blake said.
While Northern may not be playing on its home field, Morris believes playing at American Little League in Columbus could still help his team. “We should have a lot of fans here,” he said.
The team has been practicing on the American fields.
Morris makes no predictions, but he does like this team.
“Each team is different,” he said. “This is one of the best practicing teams I’ve had — the boys work hard. We hit the ball well and we’ve got pitching. So far, we’ve played well in all facets of the game and I just hope we continue to do so.
He would not pick out anyone for special praise.
“It’s just a good group of players,” Morris said. “No stars.”