Lufkin faced Series-like opponents before even making it to Lamade
Before ever reaching the Little League World Series, Lufkin, Texas experienced Series-like competition.
The road to South Williamsport was filled with perennial Texas powerhouses and Lufkin played three past qualifiers five times. Lufkin defeated 2003-04 qualifier Lamar, 3-time qualifier Pearland twice and 3-time qualifier San Antonio just to reach the Series.
It might not be shocking then that Lufkin reached Wednesday’s winner’s bracket final undefeated this summer. They certainly entered this tournament battle-tested. Who wins the U.S. Championship remains to be seen, but no team here took a more difficult journey as it pursued that goal.
“We went down there in Houston (for states) and we really didn’t know what to expect out of Pearland and Lamar and they were real good,” Lufkin manager Bud Maddux said. “We didn’t know what we were getting into but we felt like we could compete. There’s a talented bunch of young men on this team and they get after it hard every morning and every afternoon.”
Lufkin started its Little League just six years ago. Lamar, Pearland and McAllister Park in San Antonio have ruled Texas for quite some time.
And those teams are not just qualifiers. They are doing big things when they arrive at the Series. Lamar was the U.S. Runner-up in 2004, Pearland was in 2010 and 2015 and San Antonio was in 2009. Pearland and San Antonio had played at the Series in each of the past three years.
Not that the players cared much about the past. They cared about making their own mark.
“As you’re watching, you worry, ‘can we compete?’ But this was the team’s goal when they got together and this is a special team team with special players,” Lufkin Recreation and Parks director Mike Akridge said. “They played Pearland and I was scared, but they were not intimidated by playing the bigger towns. That says a lot about the 12-year old kids.”
Lufkin defeated Lamar, 7-3 in its first state tournament game and Pearland, 14-2 in its second. It then downed Pearland again in the final, winning 10-3 and capturing its first state championship since 2012.
It was against McCallister Park at that Southwest Regional, however, that would provide Lufkin its toughest test. It was against McAllister Park that Lufkin showed it is every bit as tough as it is talented.
After winning its first regional game, Lufkin quickly fell behind 2016 Southwest champion McAllister Park, 7-0. Beating that powerhouse is tough enough. Trying to do so after spotting it seven runs seems easier than climbing the Rocky Mountains.
But that is what Lufkin did. A team labeled, “The Thundering 13,” thundered back and illustrated exactly what makes them so good. Lufkin forced extra innings after tying the game, 8-8 before falling behind again in the seventh by two runs. Lufkin was one strike from losing when Chandler Spencer hit a game-tying 2-run home run. Lufkin scored the winning run a few moments later and reached the final against all odds.
“We threw the ball away early and they scored and we didn’t hang our head and go backward,” Maddux said. “They held their heads up and kept them high and came back strong to win the game. They could have quit right there, but they were mentally prepared to win the game.”
“Like with so many different sports, to be mentally tough and to keep your perseverance through adversity is tough and for the kids to do it the way they have like these kids have done is impressive,” Lufkin Parks and Recreation assistant director Matt Hubert said. “For them to stay mentally tough and sharp on the big stage is amazing. They’ve handled it well.”
McAllister Park, though, was not finished. It worked its way through the loser’s bracket and earned a championship rematch against Lufkin. This time, pitching and defense dominated the game. Lufkin led 1-0 entering the fifth inning but a throwing error tied the game, 1-1.
Again, Lufkin showed the kind of poise some players twice their age do not. Pitcher Hunter Ditsworth stranded the tying run at second base with no outs and Clayton Wigley came off the bench to deliver the hit of his life, a go-ahead home home run in the top of the sixth. Collin Ross closed it out in the bottom of the sixth and the final giant was slayed. Lufkin was the near giant killer, the new Texas king.
The former rulers now have become some of Lufkin’s biggest supporters. The team has not only proved itself strong on the field, but off it as well. All three powers did not like losing to Lufkin, but now are among those hoping the most that they keep winning.
So are those in Lufkin who are embracing this team like they do their favorite college and professional teams. Because, heck, right now Lufkin is providing the best show in town.
“We beat those teams and then they jumped on the train,” Akridge said. “Pearland and Houston and Lamar hopped on board and gave us great support. We have so many teams behind us and that’s such a good thing for what this thing does for what this does for the communities. This is a great thing for everybody involved.
These 11-12 and year old kids have done a great thing for us.”