“Oh, my God,” Caitlin Jorae gasped.
“Whoa,” Kate Haas squeaked.
It was Monday morning, and the 12-year-olds from Northern Virginia had just spotted a reminder that they were about to go big time at the Little League Softball World Series: A truck carrying 15 6,000-watt light bulbs — each the size of a car tire, the lot of them capable of turning night to day for the ESPN cameras — had parked along the left-field line at Alpenrose Stadium. Another Musco truck, carrying 36,000 watts of lighting, was on the other side of the cozy stadium, which was getting ready for its high-definition, national-television close-up.
As were the McLean Little League All-Stars, a group of 12- and 13-year-olds from Fairfax County who are undefeated at the World Series, having won their first four games by a combined score of 33-8.
McLean, which is two wins away from a World Series championship, will play in the semifinals Tuesday on ESPN2.
And how did you spend your summer?
“One of my friends is going to Hawaii,” said Kathryn Sandercock, McLean’s 13-year-old pitching star, who whips blazing fastballs using an underhand windmill motion. “I’m like: Psshaw! I’m at the Little League World Series on ESPN!”
The members of the about-to-be-seen-on-TV team from McLean weren’t even old enough for T-ball when the wealthy suburban Washington enclave first flexed its muscle here. McLean made it to the Little League World Series semifinals in 2004, then won it all the next year on the pastoral Oregon field attached to a family dairy farm.
Success begat success. In a community renowned for its high-ranking government officials, its high-earning government contractors, and its high-profile lawyers and lobbyists, everybody loves a winner. And so McLean Little League has become a powerhouse that takes its softball seriously, winning with regularity.
Its girls — miniature creatures of Washington, power players with braces and braids — have captured six of the past 10 state championships. The number of kids signing up to play exploded after the 2005 World Series, and it’s never really slowed since.
“Little League softball is a big deal in McLean because of our tradition,” said Gerry Megas, the manager of this year’s all-star team. “It’s a major part of our community.”
Megas coached soccer and basketball before volunteering to work with his youngest daughter’s softball team. She is 22, long past the point of eligibility, but Megas, the former chief financial officer at a Fortune 500 company, has continued to coach softball.
“It’s such a positive activity, with great lessons for the kids,” he said. And the work dovetails with what he does now as chief financial officer at KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that helps build playgrounds.
Also, he likes winning. And in McLean (actually, McLean plus parts of Falls Church and Arlington, according to the official boundaries), the Little League softball program is designed to produce winning all-star teams, Megas said.
There are pitching clinics to get young girls interested in developing their fast pitch skills (the best ones wind up working with private coaches) and highly competitive programs for girls who aren’t yet old enough to play on the team. The team that’s now in Oregon practices at the McLean Little League fields on Westmoreland Street with local high school coaches and takes batting practice against former little leaguers who are now playing in high school and college, to prepare them to play against the best teams from around the world.
So far, so good.
“Anybody can win this,” Megas said, lying just slightly, after Sunday evening’s game against a team from Elyria, Ohio, that McLean won 2-1 in its final at-bat. “You can’t make that the thing you’re most concerned about. I want the girls to win, don’t get me wrong. But the objective is for them to play well and enjoy this incredible experience, which is, I think, the greatest thing in the world.”
After the tense, thrilling walk-off win against Ohio, Megas gathered the team around a picnic table behind the field. There were 12 of them — a riot of freckles and ponytails and brightly colored ribbons and fingernails, which they’d gotten painted together in Portland. Their parents and siblings lurked on the concourse behind home plate, breathing a collective sigh of relief.
Megas beamed. The girls looked bored, in that way that middle-schoolers do, even before he began to talk.
“That was amazing,” he said, “a classic game, win or lose.”
A few girls clapped.
“I like the winning part a lot better,” he added. He went over the highlights, of which there were many.
Julia Jones had the game-winning hit.
Rachel Remer stole a base to set up the winning run.
Catcher Elizabeth Hoeymans was a brick wall behind the plate.
Kathryn Sandercock allowed just one run to an undefeated team.
“Previously undefeated,” Madison Wolfe clarified.
The team laughed, except for Sandercock, who was fuming that she’d given up a run.
“We’ll have two more games like this,” Megas said, meaning Tuesday’s semifinal and — he hoped — the final Wednesday. A game against Italy on Monday looked like an easy win (and it was, 10-1) and didn’t matter in the standings anyway. Beating Ohio guaranteed McLean a top seed in pool play.
“Anybody who watched that, they’re worried about playing us,” he said.
Then, he went over the schedule.
Dinner would be at the stadium. Afterward, there would be swimming at the hotel — an announcement that seemed to delight the team more than the walk-off win.
Jorae asked when Tuesday’s game would be on TV.
Four local time, 7 p.m. in Virginia, Megas said.
“I’m going to be famous,” Jorae declared.
The next day, as a production crew wired the stadium for the ESPN2 telecast, the McLean girls sang, as they often do. On the bus, they’d done a group version of a song from “The Lorax.” Now, in their dugout, they were singing along with the Black Eyed Peas.
Team-building events — shopping, swimming, a trip to the zoo — had been critical. Many of the girls were rivals in Little League and on elite PONY teams. “It’s as much social as anything else for the girls,” Megas said. “They have to have good team chemistry.”
There were maybe 200 people in the stands, most of them McLean moms, dads and siblings. Edwin Jorae was multitasking behind the backstop. His company, CODA Construction, was building three houses with four more in development. He had to work while his daughter played.
The World Series was disrupting jobs and upending summer schedules. There were canceled vacations to the Outer Banks, national parks and London. Riley Simon’s family was in Hawaii without her. No biggie.
“I can always go to Hawaii,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if we lose.”
And if they don’t? Megas recalled that the team visited the White House after winning the 2005 World Series, “because they knew people.”
Colin Sandercock — a partner at Perkins Coie in the real world, a pitch-calling dugout coach here — smiled wryly. “Well,” he said, “my law partner is counsel to the White House.”