The members of the Spring Hill Dixie Majors Baseball Club sat in a local restaurant one night last week celebrating their state championship — an unlikely title that almost never was.
As the team, parents and coaches prepared for the next step, a trip to the World Series starting this weekend in Gonzales, La., they couldn't help reflecting on how Spring Hill's 11- and 12-year-old All-Stars have gotten to this point.
Less than a month ago, the team's summer of playing ball was over.
After making it to the District 6 Tournament, the Nationals were considered one of the favorites, but it ran into two solid clubs in Wildwood and Hernando Youth League. The bats just never got going for the local lads.
The boys were disappointed with their finish, shocked at how their season had come to a screeching halt.
"When we talked to the kids, they were pretty quiet (after districts)," Spring Hill manager Al Sorrentino said. "The good thing about kids is that they bounce back quickly."
That's when fate intervened.
One of the teams from District 8 couldn't make the trip to the Dixie State Tournament in Destin. Officials asked the league if Spring Hill would be interested in taking its place?
The answer was quick and obvious: The players wanted to get back on the diamond and have some fun.
That laid-back attitude seemed to give the team members a boost of confidence as they approached their second chance. As the competition rose, the team seemed more and more confident, and capable of winning the double-elimination tournament.
Wildwood went 0-2, and Hernando, whom Spring Hill had difficulty cracking at the plate, fell in the semifinals.
"The coaches and players never went up there with the attitude of being there just to play," Sorrentino said. "We were there to win, but the atmosphere was definitely far looser."
Almost every game was a tight one, giving the Spring Hill players the kind of experience that will be necessary as the team gets to the next level.
Thanks to the growing chemistry and lively bats the team brought to Destin, the coaches believe that there isn't any reason why Team Florida won't be a force in Louisiana as well.
"We got it through our heads that we could hit any pitcher," Spring Hill pitcher Jeff Misener said. "Teams are going to commit a lot less errors up (at the World Series), so it's going to be a lot tougher for us."
Misener, 12, went 4-0 on the mound at state and hit .625 at the dish during the tournament. The biggest surprise of his performance is that, as one of biggest kids on the roster, he has only been playing ball for two years. After a lukewarm first season, he found a real love for the game as Spring Hill's vocal leader.
While the run to the World Series was a team effort, another big factor for the Nationals has been a cog at the bottom of the order. Bodhi Sbashnig, an 11-year-old utility player, hit .444 for the team while standing only 4-foot-11. He thought his improved performance with the bat was because of the better pitching.
"The pitching at state was harder, and that's how I liked it," Sbashnig said. "Hopefully, it's even harder at the World Series."
With its first game Saturday against Team Arkansas at 3:30 p.m., there are a lot plans in motion to get the group 641 miles for a potential seven-day trip. The Tampa Bay Rays have already donated $3,000, and local businesses such as Rose Radiology and Tinari Chiropractic have combined to contribute another $2,000.
Dr. Dominick Tinari and Colleen Tinari, parents of catcher Michael Tinari, organized the fundraiser/celebration for the team and family and friends at Beef 'O'Brady's last week. Ten percent of each bill went toward the team's trip.
"It's just incredible how this whole thing unfolded. It was like a storybook," Colleen Tinari said. "It's just so surreal that this is really happening."
She also put together a raffle for a tree of 50 scratch-off lottery tickets. Entries went for $5 per ticket. At the end of the night, the raffle raised $530 toward the trip. Dr. Tinari won the tree, and announced that any money he won on the lottery tickets would also go toward the trip.
With the funds raised and the hopes of the community in their corner, the only thing Spring Hill has to do is play the games at the Dixie Majors World Series this week representing the state of Florida.
Sbashnig might have put his teammates' sentiments the best way before the ride up to Louisiana. "This will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."