WARNER ROBINS — For nearly 90 minutes, West Virginia pitcher Ethan Stepp kept Columbus Northern off balance.
He survived two hit batters in the first inning and then two baserunners in the third and the fourth.
Then came the bottom of the fifth, and, as far as West Virginia was concerned, it seemed to take almost 90 minutes just to get the first out.
Northern, the Georgia state champion, took advantage of West Virginia’s sudden pitching and defensive woes to push across seven runs en route to a 9-3 win Wednesday in the first semifinal of the Little League Baseball Southeast Regional Tournament at Little League Southeast Park.
“We seem to like that,” Northern manager Randy Morris said of his team’s tendency in this tournament to fall behind and storm back. “We’ve done that a lot, for whatever reason. I can’t figure out why. So far, we’ve overcome it.”
Northern advanced to play Florida in Friday night’s regional championship for the coveted spot in the Little League World Series.
Starting pitchers Stepp and Troy Gilliland got past some early offense, and Stepp got out of some trouble, until Blake Hicks stepped to the plate to lead off the fifth for Northern.
“The way we approached the bottom of the fifth, especially with the Hicks kid, is I wanted a ground out from him and (Jacob) Pate in about five pitches,” West Virginia manager Chris Jordan said. “I turned to my coach, Sam Stepp, and I said, ‘If they score in this inning, we’re in trouble. If we get out of this inning, we got them.’ ”
West Virginia needed a long time to get out of that inning.
The second pitch of the frame to Hicks became a little-doubt-about-it homer to right-center to tie it at 3.
Pate walked, and there went Jordan’s plan.
Five more Northern players came to the plate and reached, thanks in part to a pair of errors, before West Virginia could get an out.
Stepp, who had kept Northern on its heels with off-speed and breaking stuff, couldn’t find the plate, throwing 10 balls on his final 11 pitches.
“If Hicks doesn’t homer and Pate doesn’t get on, I really believe — because we had control of the rest of the lineup — that we’d start getting our hands around it,” Jordan said. “But that’s an excellent club.”
Hicks got to the plate again and cleared the bases with a three-run double.
“We just didn’t feel like we were hitting well,” Hicks said of the three straight scoreless innings and an early 3-2 deficit. “But we kept on fighting.”
West Virginia was aggressive early, getting a first-inning solo homer from Jonathan Stepp and then two runs on Christopher Jordan’s double in the second. Northern managed two runs on two hit batters, an error and infield single in the first.
“We knew we could hit the ball; we were just waiting for when we were going to show it,” third baseman Kobie Buglioli said. “We did it late-inning, again. Like always.”
Ethan Stepp struck out the final two batters in the third with two on and got a double play to finish the fourth. But West Virginia wasted a leadoff double by Luke Mayhew in the fourth, and Northern pitchers Gilliland and Pate combined to retire nine of West Virginia’s final 11 batters.
“I really felt like one run wouldn’t beat us,” said Morris, whose team scored five unearned runs. “We just felt very confident. We knew that at some point in time, we’d bust loose.”