As their classmates were still in bed, 12 Northern Little League baseball players and their coaches were gathering at the Columbus welcome center to begin the journey to Williamsport, Pa.
The team qualified for the Little League World Series by winning the Southeastern Regional Friday night in Warner Robins, Ga. After driving to Atlanta, flying to Philadelphia and then making the three-hour drive to Williamsport, the team got there in the early evening.
That will give them plenty of time to get ready for Saturday’s opening game against the Western Region champion from Hawaii.
Toby and Tammy Gilliland were there to see off their son, Troy, just three days after returning from the regional championship tournament.
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“We just took everything, washed it and put it back in,” Toby Gilliland said of packing his son for what could be two weeks in Williamsport.
For Northern catcher Blake Hicks, his 5:30 a.m. wake-up call came early.
“Way early,” he said.
Before leaving, Northside High baseball coach David Smart gave the team a quick pep talking, telling them how proud the city was of its accomplishment.
“How many of you have seen the movie ‘Miracle?’ ” Smart asked. “Well, there is a line in there that says, ‘Great moments come from great opportunities.’ You have a great opportunity.”
Before leaving for Williamsport, the Northern Little Leaguers took pens in hand and spent some time autographing baseballs to be given to their largest donors, helping offset travel costs for the parents and families who will be following the team.
This is becoming old hat to Northern, which sent a team to the World Series four years ago. On top of donations, another way to pick up money is to sell hats and T-shirts, league president Bob Long said.
Those hats and shirts — which will be in the Southeastern colors of garnet and gold — will sell for $20 each.
Long said the items should be available by Thursday at Team Sports, and on sale at the Psalmond Road complex during Northern’s fall ball tryouts this week.
Little League pays for the teams and coaches to travel to Williamsport, where they are housed for free in dorms near the stadiums.
But the families are on their own.
“It can get expensive,” Long said.
Four years ago, Northern raised about $100,000 to offset travel costs. But that was a different game. That team played the district tournament in Harris County, the state tournament in Augusta and the Southeastern Regional near St. Petersburg in Gulfport, Fla.
Those following the team this year have spent a lot less time on the road — and in hotels.
The district and state tournaments were in Columbus and the regional was 75 miles away in Warner Robins.
“We’re not going to have to raise as much as we did in 2006,” Northern vice president Clay Duncan said.
One of the ways they hope to get money is through online donations at www.northernll.org.
When Northern’s senior softball team went to Virginia for a tournament this summer, the league raised about $700 from online contributions, Duncan said.
“What really helped us was PayPal,” Duncan said of the online payment tool. “If we can get 10 bucks here and 5 bucks there, it really adds up.”
Northern manager Randy Morris made some calls over the weekend, soliciting funds. He was involved four years ago, so he had some contacts. But it is not all about large donations, Morris said.
“There is none too small, and none too big,” Morris said. “Anything is appreciated.”
One of the fundraising goals is to keep from having to dip into the league’s coffers.
“We do not want to take any money from the operating budget,” Long said.