Peachtree City finally overcame regional hurdle

Snow rarely falls in Peachtree City, Georgia but when it did last winter Connor Soper maintained his daily routine. He plodded through the snow and kept throwing the baseball off his pitchback. The ball often fell through the snow on its way back, but Soper kept throwing.

Peachtree City American Little League came so close to reaching the Little League World Series before and episodes like that showed how determined these incoming all-stars were to complete a journey four years in the making.

The past two seasons, Peachtree City lost in the Southeast Regional championship. Both times it held leads but both times watched the opponent celebrate every Little Leaguer’s dream coming true. This year, Peachtree City fielded an all new all-star team and this group would not be denied. Peachtree City hurdled that final obstacle and is competing at the Little League World Series for the first time. That journey is finally complete.

“To get that close for that many years and now be able to come to Williamsport is pretty special,” said Yuki Braxton, whose son Tai Peete has become one of the team’s most valuable players. “To see their bond develop so quickly within a season and for them to get to this level of play has just been amazing. You watch them play and handle everything that comes their way and you forget that they’re 12-year olds.”

“When I was younger I saw it (the Series) on TV and watched my friends play at (regionals) and told them that we were going to play there some day,” Peete said. “It’s so awesome. Once we got that last out and knew we were coming, we just threw our gloves up high and started screaming.”

Nearly everyone throughout that small-town community shared similar joy when Peachtree City defeated Virginia, 3-0 and captured that elusive Southeast championship. Later that night, the team returned home to a heroes’ welcome. A horde of firetrucks and police cars escorted the team down the main street as jubilant residents yelled well-wishes. Players signed autographs and parents felt indescribable joy seeing their children achieve something so big.

“It was a great scene,” Peachtree City American Little League president and Connor’s father, David Soper said. “These are loose kids who are having fun but who work extremely hard. They are very much enjoying the ride.”

The ride essentially started in 2015 when Peachtree City captured its first state championship. That team went 1-2 and the 2016 squad took the next step when it reached the Southeast final. Goodlettsville, Tennessee rallied from an early deficit to win that game, but Peachtree looked like it might be Series-bound when it built a 3-0 first-inning lead. Instead, Greenville, North Carolina won, 8-6. Both Tennessee and North Carolina then reached the U.S. championship both years, making Peachtree City wonder, what if?

While none of the current players experienced those heartbreaking regional final losses, lessons were learned that helped them. And when this team defeated 2006 world champion Columbus to win the state title and again reach regionals, those past coaches and players were they providing any help they could so 2018 could become the breakthrough year. Peachtree City also stayed focused on each game, instead of looking ahead. There was no saving pitchers for another day before the current game was one.

Those last three teams were powerhouse squads. Driving that point home, six members of the 2015 squad started for Peachtree City high school last spring as freshmen, helping it reach the state championship. So this time, Peachtree City approached each game like a championship. Now hat approach now has it chasing the ultimate Little League championship.

“The last three years showed them how hard it is. You look at the talent the other teams had and they realized that these were great teams and that we had to stay focused and work hard every day,” Peachtree City manager Patrick Gloriod said. “We faced a lot of great teams and we battled them and these kids have a lot of heart. They do the little things as a team and it’s an amazing group of kids.”

What those past Peachtree City teams also did is lay the groundwork. Reaching the Series became something tangible instead of just a far-fetched dream. These current players also watched their friends playing on big stages and competing in front of millions watching on television. In that way, it relaxed these players.

Maybe they had not participated in those past regional games, but it felt like they did in some ways. Instead of feeling the weight of carrying the league’s Series dreams, Peachtree City players are basking in the glow. Peachtree City opened regionals by edging Tennessee 1-0 and Virginia 4-3, winning each games in its last at-bats. Look at all the boxscores this summer and one sees every player doing something big at critical times in each game. Instead of the past three years being a burden, they provided a springboard.

“Our boys handle pressure amazingly. They are a lot calmer than us parents,” Soper said. “They are good cohesive group of boys who are just having fun. The last couple years set up that, àwe can do it attitude,’ so let’ just do it.”

“It doesn’t matter what the size of the field is and it doesn’t matter how many fans are there,” Peete just said. “You forget about that and it’s just us playing on the field against the opponent.”

Peachtree City entered the Series undefeated, surviving rugged district, state and regional fields. This team has established itself as the best in league history which is a remarkable achievement in itself. But maybe more impressive is what they have done for those past Peachtree City teams.

This has been a summer-long tribute to those teams.

“I can’t say enough about these kids. They are some of the best kids I’ve ever been around,” Gloriod said. “It’s pretty special.”