As a group of 9- and 10-year-olds, last year's Plant City Little League All-Stars earned the title of best team in the Southeast. So there was a little pressure when the same group showed up to try and win the same title as 10- and 11-year-olds.
But pressure does not appear to be a hindrance to this bunch.
After emerging from a semifinal game it won after being down to its last out, Plant City defeated Goodlettsville, Tenn., 4-1 to win the Tournament of State Champions last week.
The tourney was in Greenville, N.C.
"These guys play on different teams during the regular season, but when they all got back together for all-stars it was like night and day," said Plant City manager T.J. Messick. "They were fired up and ready to get going."
Carrying over all but one of the 11 players that won last year's 9-10 regional tourney crown, Plant City had the look of a champion all along.
But as opposed to last year's undefeated run through the entire postseason, this time difficult obstacles threatened to end the trip.
In Greenville, the Plant City team started with a narrow victory, 3-2 over Northwood, S.C. That was followed by the last-inning rally against Tennessee, and finally a defeat of Goodlettsville — and its incredible pitcher — that handed Plant City its only loss in Greenville.
Plant City had no answer for Hunter Crawford's mid-70 mph fastball and lost to the Tennessee team 5-2 in pool play.
Facing the hard-throwing Crawford again in the finals, Plant City stunned the pro-Tennessee crowd by putting up two runs in the first inning. And curveball master J.J. Gonzalez shut down the Tennessee bats.
Plant City's success the second time around against Crawford was no accident. Assistant coach Steve Shissler threw batting practice to the kids the morning of the game.
"We knew Tennessee would probably pitch (Crawford). We couldn't touch him the first game," Shissler said. "He was one of the hardest throwing 11-year-old pitchers we'd seen. So we set up the L-screen about 35 to 40 feet away. I was bringing it much harder than the boys had seen from us coaches to that point. They all made contact and hit some hard shots. So when we went into the game, we were actually ahead of Crawford just a bit."
In 16 postseason games Plant City had seven different pitchers post victories: Gonzalez, Bryar Christian, Andrew Long, Dylan Robinson, Parker Messick, Ben Pues and Cade Shissler. Long and Christian both led the way with four.
Christian doubled as the hottest hitter, compiling a .519 average and having the knack for clutch situations. Gonzalez had four homers while Christian, Hunter Emerine and Robinson all had at least two.
Connor Rogers, Shissler, Braxton Plunk — whose double got things going in the final — and Jake Stines all hit .400 or higher And Rogers led a tremendous defense from third base, making a number of great plays.