Monday's win for the Plant City Little League Majors All-Star team was so important, they allowed themselves to celebrate.
For all of 20 seconds.
Humble but hungry — the mantra for this special group — helped the team claim its first Majors state championship since 1995, beating Windermere 5-3 in comeback fashion.
Now, Plant City will represent Florida and challenge seven other states at the Southeastern Regional tournament starting today in Warner Robins, Ga. At stake will be a trip to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series.
Plant City has never made it to the World Series.
"This is awesome," said Plant City manager Tate Whatley, who can't stop gushing over his group.
He notes their celebration, a quick little bit of jumping up and down after the win over Windermere, was the only such display he has seen this summer.
"Winning district and sectional, they reacted just like it was any other game," Whatley said. "Just shake the opponent's hand and say 'good game' that's it. This is a very tight bunch of young men and each game and tournament they've grown."
After falling in the sectional rounds in recent years, this Plant City team won several close games to advance past that stage and on to last weekend's state tourney. The action was held at DeBary Little League in between Daytona Beach and Orlando.
And it didn't start well. Bayshore defeated Plant City 9-6 in its opening game of pool play July 27. That put Plant City into must-win mode for its two Saturday games.
And since a 2-1 record might have meant needing a tiebreaker, namely having the fewest runs allowed, it became pretty simple: score a lot, and don't give up many.
But Plant City has a tremendously deep pitching staff, and an offense that caught fire all at once. The result? Wins over Boynton Beach (15-2) and South Fort Myers (18-2). Plant City easily won its pool thanks to the runs-allowed tiebreaker.
In Sunday's semifinals, Plant City knocked off Merritt Island 17-2. The finale was a different story, as Windermere led 2-0 through four innings before Plant City rallied, getting three in the fifth and two more in the sixth to prevail.
Whatley made it a point to credit the entire team for its consistent play.
"We have had outstanding pitching performances from TJ Gayner, Cody Ginther, Austin Eldridge and Christian Laird, not to mention some very sharp defensive plays made by Zack Ford, Will Johnson, Emilio Rivera and Matt Byars," Whatley said. "We have also had some very good offense from Cody Cribbs, Benji Hidalgo, Tate Whatley and CJ Kirkland.
"So far it just seems like whenever we need something big to happen or just a spark that any one of these kids step up and perform, whether on the mound, in the field or at the plate, I have total confidence and faith in every one of them."
Despite the success, Whatley says the group remains humble. Even the prospect of playing on national TV, which will happen if Plant City ends up in the top two of its four-team pool, doesn't have a demonstrative effect.
"Their motto is 'win one game in a row.' After we beat Windermere it was the little celebration and then 'Okay coach what's next?' And I told them, Okay, Alabama's next," said Whatley.
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]