Despite success, Greenville kids endured bumps in road

Greenville, North Carolina entered Wednesday’s Little League World Series winner’s bracket final undefeated.

Greenville threw consecutive no-hitters in their first two Series games and navigated both difficult state and regional tournaments just to reach South Williamsport.

Make no mistake, though. This team has endured bumps in the road. Maybe not this year, but they have endured heartache before. As 10-year-olds, the core of this Southeast champion lost in the state finals. A year ago, Greenville won states, but squandered a five-run, sixth-inning lead as Georgia eliminated it at regionals.

Maybe that is why this year’s Series experience means so much. Greenville has felt the sting of defeat but has broken through and is enjoying the sweetest victory.

“I can’t describe this feeling. We’re just one of those teams that always had success, but never won that big prize,” Greenville manager Brian Fields said. “These guys have just come together. The roles change and one thing we preach is you have to accept what you’re role is going to be for the team and you have to embrace it. It takes 13 to win and every player, every at-bat is important.”

Greenville has lived those words all summer, since its first practice July 1. All 13 players have made big impacts. The bottom of the order and the reserves came up huge during the Southeast Regional and Greenville outscored its first two Series opponents, 22-0.

Even more impressive, Greenville lost two potential all-stars right before this run started. A team that suffered a crushing defeat in its last all-star game could have crumbled before the all-star season ever began. But that is not this team’s style.

Greenville is a talented, unselfish team. Just as important, those players are fighters. Greenville stormed into regionals but trailed Georgia, 3-0, in the first inning of the Southeast final.

It seemed fitting that if Greenville wanted to go the distance it would need to clear a big obstacle. This time, Greenville flipped the script. Two days after defeating 2012 U.S. Champion and 2016 U.S. Runner-up Goodletsville, Tennessee, Greenville stormed back and defeated Georgia, 8-6.

That big prize was finally theirs.

“These boys are resilient,” Fields said. “They gave up three runs and they never hung their heads. They never pouted and kept grinding.”

“They were able to learn from last year and showed some resiliency and came back stronger than ever this year and now they’re in Williamsport,” Greenville North State Little League president Brian Weingartz said. “So much of the credit goes to coaches Brian Fields and Michael Vaughn and Jake Allen. Those guys really keep those kids on an even keel and they really respond well to those coaches. Whenever there is adversity they are able to work through it because the leadership is so solid.”

This is just the second Greenville team to ever reach the Series and the first from the North State Little League. Greenville is the first North Carolina team at the Series since Morganton in 2004. All are impressive achievements, but Greenville is now chasing the biggest prize of all, becoming one of the last three U.S teams standing this summer.

It is the culmination of years of work. Greenville has kept improving each season and never let defeat define it. Greenville kept moving forward when championship losses could have knocked it backward.

Now the world is learning just how good these players have become. After blanking both South Dakota and California and throwing consecutive no-hitters, Greenville bcame the talk of the Series Sunday. No U.S team had mercy-ruled a California squad at this Series in the 2000s, so Greenville doing that and pounding out 18 hits made a major statement.

“They’re unbelievable. They swing the bat well. One through nine and the pinch-hitters got the pitch they wanted to hit and they hit,” California manager C.J. Ankrum said. “They wanted to hit. They weren’t reacting. They were getting in the box and they really wanted to hit. They did a great job.”

Ankrum touched on why exactly Greenville has become so good. This is not a team carried but a few players. This is a great team, period. Chase Anderson, Matthew Matthjis and Carson Hardee combined on two straight Series no-hitters, but it was Thomas Barrett who threw five innings of one-run ball against Tennessee in the Southeast winner’s bracket final. It was Cameron Greenway throwing 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief against Florida a day earlier.

Matthjis and Hardee sparked the offense throughout the summer, but when they cooled off at regionals it was the bottom of the order coming up big. No. 8 hitter Bryce Jackson hit a game-changing 3-run home run against Georgia and No. 9 hitter Cash Daniels-Moye reached base all three times that day.

Against California, 12 of the 13 players delivered at least one hit. The one player who did not record a hit, scored a run. A team watched its season end in heartbreak the past two seasons sure is making the most of this hard-earned and coveted experience.

“When you’re a little kid, it’s all you want to do,” Anderson said. “Now that we’re here, it’s just surreal.”

Minus two days after winning regionals, Greenville players and coaches have spent nearly every day and night together since August 3. They have essentially become a family. It sure looks that way on the field, too.

Greenville looks like it moves in motion as one. Everything has clicked and everything has fell into place at the perfect time.

“We’ve just bonded and that really helps. You stay in the same room and you get to know your teammates,” Hardee said. “It feels like we’ve been playing together forever.”

And forever is how long Greenville will remember this historic team.