NEW TAMPA — The night before he was to pitch against Kendall in the state championship game in Coral Gables — a team that had beaten his team 11-1 just two days earlier, a team that had hit 14 home runs and scored 53 runs in four previous games — New Tampa Little League pitcher Conor Grady said he wasn't nervous at all.
Why would he be?
"I knew we had a good team," he said. "I knew we'd pull it out."
Grady allowed two singles and struck out 11. New Tampa went on to win 6-1, and now is in Warner Robins, Ga., for the Southeastern Regional Tournament, one step short of mythical Little League mecca Williamsport, Pa.
The team faces West Virginia in a pool play game today at 10 a.m. If it advances out of pool play, its semifinal game is scheduled to be televised on ESPN2 on Wednesday.
It is the realization of a goal the New Tampa players had since last year, when they lost in the sectionals.
Even through the regular season, while the all-stars played for the Reds, Giants, Marlins and others, they always had one eye on today.
"Everybody was always kind of talking about it," said pitcher and infielder Bryce Martin, whom they call "the Quarterback" because he's also a rising football talent.
The run by New Tampa marks the first time the league has sent a team this far. Coached by Andy Trujeque, Ed Thinger and Charlie Havre, the team of 11- and 12-year-old all-stars has kept on winning behind a balanced lineup with power at the top, steady defense and solid pitching.
There was one close call — Khalil Almutasim hit a homer in the ninth inning to break a tie with rival Land O'Lakes in a crucial sectional game — and a few comebacks, like the rally from 4-1 down against Maitland. Otherwise, the team is doing much of what it expected with eight players back from last year's all-star team.
"It's already been an experience of a lifetime," said Almutasim, who traveled to Georgia as a member of a Pony League all-star team when he was 8. He is one of only five new players to this year's squad.
"Pretty much everyone said if we were ever going to have a shot to get this far, it would be this team," Trujeque said. "We have a good lineup, with some pop, and we've been pretty opportunistic."
Leadoff hitter and centerfielder Aaron Guiang has 17 home runs, and won the home run competition at state.
Shortstop Ethan Thomas bats behind Guiang, and has 15 homers. Behind them is Clayton Coringrato, another power bat.
Martin bats cleanup, and David Trujeque, Jonathan Baughman, Henry Havre, Jeffrey Guttentag and ironman catcher Eddie Thinger, who caught every inning but one at state, round out what has been a strong lineup.
Coach Trujeque says he can play everyone almost anywhere, meaning there is little dropoff when he inserts Spencer McCabe, Colin Hayes or Almutasim, who plays first and closes.
At state, Almutasim broke his aluminum bat at the handle fouling off a pitch. His dad showed off the two pieces before a practice Tuesday afternoon.
"We knew we had a good shot to do this," said Thomas, the shortstop. "I'm glad it all came together."
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.