Southwest champs come back to defeat North Carolina and earn berth in championship

Mark Requena of Texas stomps on home plate as he is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two-run home run, putting Texas ahead in the top of the sixth inning, en route to a win over North Carolina in the United States Championship. (MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette)

As he finished circling the bases after hitting the go-ahead home run, Mark Requena jumped high and stomped on home plate.

Call it an emphatic mission statement. Lufkin, Texas knew few outside its state thought it could win Saturday. But this team speaks softly and carries a mighty stick. It sure fights hard too and now is standing atop the entire American Little League summit.

Requena hit a go-ahead, two-run, sixth-inning home run, Chip Buchanan retired the last four batters he faced and Lufkin, Texas erased a five-run deficit as it defeated Greenville, North Carolina, 6-5, and captured the United States Championship in one of the most thrilling national title games ever played at Lamade Stadium.

The Lufkin Little League did not exist seven years ago. Now Lufkin has become the country’s best Little League Baseball team, beating a team that some thought was invincible after allowing just one hit in three games and outscoring its first two opponents, 22-0.

“I had a lot of anger in me because they beat us last time (2-1 Wednesday) and I knew we could come back,” pitcher Collin Ross said after striking out five in 4 2/3 innings. “I saw everyone saying all over social media that North Carolina was going to win and I wanted to prove them wrong.”

Lufkin became the first Texas team to reach the world final since Bellaire in 2000 and ended a streak in which five straight Texas teams had lost in the U.S. Final. Now the Texas eyes are smiling because Lufkin goes for the world’s biggest prize Sunday when it faces Japan in the world championship. It will be trying to come the first Texas team to capture a world championship since Houston in 1966.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” second baseman Malcolm Deason said. “There are so many kids that would love to be here.”

Texas traveled a demanding road en route to winning the U.S title, having to beat three past Texas qualifiers that have combined for eight Series appearances eight times. North Carolina handed Texas its first loss this summer Wednesday when it won in extra innings, but manager Bud Maddux said that night the loss ultimately could be the best thing that happened to his team.

Maddux should know. The legendary youth coach led Dixie Youth teams to 10 world championships during his illustrious career. Now he has led Lufkin where so few thought it could go just six years ago when the league started.

“This is at the top,” Maddux said. “You can’t even imagine what it feels like.”

As exhilarating as the win was for Texas it was equally painful for North Carolina. The Southeast champions had outscored opponents, 27-1, at the Series after taking a 5-0 third-inning lead and had allowed just two hits in 21 Series innings at that point.

North Carolina suffered its first loss all season but the only tears manager Brian Fields shed afterward were tears of pride. His team still finished as the country’s second-best team and can finish third in the world if it defeats Mexico in Sunday’s consolation game. North Carolina just missed becoming the first from its state to reach a world final but has made the state’s deepest run ever at the Series.

“I just told them (afterward) to look at the venue and look at the crowd you got to play in front of in the U.S. Championship,” Fields said. “They have nothing to be ashamed of. They have exceeded all my expectations.”

Texas winning the national title might not have seemed unthinkable when North Carolina took a 5-0 third-inning lead, but it certainly looked like a long shot. If ever there was a game that symbolized everything this Texas team represents, this was it. Clayton Wigley hit a two-out, two-run, pinch-hit home run in the fourth inning to ignite the comeback. Malcolm Deason added a two-out RBI single and scored on a wild pitch an inning later and suddenly Texas trailed just, 5-4.

Ross settled into a groove and retired six of the last seven batters he faced. Buchanan then retired the final batter in the fifth inning and Texas took all the momentum into the sixth.

Ross was hit by a pitch to open the inning, setting the stage for Requena. The hard-hitting first baseman finished 3 for 3 but was upset that he fell behind in the count 0-2. Requena channeled his anger, took two balls and then the left-hander drove an outside pitch the opposite way, depositing it over the left-field wall as the Texas families along the third-base line jumped for joy and exchanged high-fives.

“The umpire called two strikes that I didn’t think were strikes, but you can’t do anything about that,” Requena said. “I just had to hit the ball and do what I could for the team.”

Buchanan, who threw only 17 pitches and will start against Japan, made quick work of North Carolina in the sixth. The right-hander worked a perfect inning, retiring the Southeast champions on 11 pitches. Shortstop Blake Slaga ended the game, fielding a hard hit Cash Daniels-Moye grounder and making a snap throw to Requena that just beat the diving Daniels-Moye.

Texas players did not immediately dogpile. Instead, they simply ran off the field before seeming to grasp the magnitude of their achievement after crossing the third-base line. Players jumped into each other’s arms then while the fans above them saluted a team that never backed down when the odds seemed so long.

“I have confidence in these guys,” Maddux said. “We’ve been down before and we’ve come back and played our hearts out in and won and we did that again.”

Requena and Wigley started changing the game’s complexion in the fourth inning. Requena hit an opposite-field, two-out single and Wigley continued providing magic off the bench. Wigley hit his third pinch-hit home run since the Southwest final that won that game. This won did not win it, but it started pointing the way to victory.

“I’m just always looking for an opportunity to make something happen,” Wigley said. “I was just trying to get a base hit and it ended up going over.”

A team labeled “The Thundering 13,” continued producing two-out thunder an inning later. Charlie Deaton hit a pinch-hit single but Carson Hardee struck out the next two hitters before reaching his pitch-count limit. Deason then hit his clutch RBI single, went to second and third on wild pitches and when the the throw to third went into the outfield it became a one-run game.

“When they scored those two in the fifth and made it 5-4 that was a huge play in the game,” Fields said. “There’s a big difference between a one-run game and a two-run game.”

For 3 1/2 innings, though, this game hardly looked like an instant classic. Cameron Greenway continued his torrid Series hitting and ignited North Carolina’s first scoring rally, hitting an opposite field single. JoeJoe Byrne followed with a single before Bryce Jackson ripped a two-run single into left field that put North Carolina ahead to stay.

North Carrolina padded its lead in the third inning, scoring three more times as Thomas Barrett, Ashton Byars and Byrne all singled. Byrne delivered the big hit, driving a two-run single into left field and then scoring on Chase Anderson’s RBI grounder that made it 5-0.

Texas was down, but not out. Now it stands above all the rest.

“There’s nobody else in the spot we’re in right now,” Ross said. “There isn’t anybody who wouldn’t want to be in our shoes.”