The Western Charles White Sox Little League baseball team swept through the regular season at 19-0, changed uniforms, and has gone 9-0 since as the Western Charles Little League All-Stars. Yet every hour of every day, the manager of both squads -- Kenny Wood -- is dealing with loss.
So, too, is his wife, Laurie Wood, who has attended every win. So too is his son, Jared Wood, 15, a top pitcher for the White Sox. So too, in fact, is everyone who was touched in some way by Derek Cornel Wood, whose life ended tragically at age 18 last December, in a car accident.
Derek, a former member of this White Sox team, was supposed to serve as one of his father's assistant coaches this year.
"I think deep down these kids played a little more, a little harder, for me and my son than anyone could have expected," said Kenny Wood, whose 15-16-year-old team -- unlike others in the area -- did not combine rosters at the end of the season when all-star play began. Instead, with that same roster, the team won the District 7 Lou Zwick Memorial Invitational Tournament and the District 7 Senior Little League All-Star Tournament.
"They know how hard this is," Wood continued. "Most of the time I cry on my way to the field and on my way home because this is where my son played. And it's hard being here without him. It's hard even running my business. Hard getting up every day."
The White Sox now will represent the district in a best-of-three tournament against either the District 6 or District 8 representative beginning Monday in Salisbury, Md. The winner will advance to the Maryland State Tournament (which hosts the winners of the four district face-offs) with the opportunity to advance to the Eastern Region Tournament and, finally, the Little League World Series.
"We knew we had talent on this team; it was just a matter of going out and doing it," said Martin Queen, who played varsity baseball with Derek Wood at Lackey High School in 1998. "Kenny always tells us that the person who wants it most is going to get it. And this year, we all want it for Derek and for his family."
The team is much improved from last year, when it went 19-6 and failed to advance beyond the all-star tournament. The biggest difference on the field has been pitching, where Josh Howells, Tommy Sellers and Jared Wood have been seemingly untouchable. Howells has compiled a 12-0 record with 137 strikeouts; Sellers is 10-0 with 77 strikeouts; and Wood is 4-0 with 27 strikeouts. Reserve throwers Ryan Grant and Adam Moose each picked up one win for the White Sox.
"I think one of the biggest changes in the boys this year has been their level of maturity," said Coach John Buck, who has paired with Kenny Wood for more than five years. "We've got hitting throughout the lineup, and this year, the pitching, for no better word, has been stellar."
Seven of the White Sox's 12 players carry a .350 batting average or better, with four players -- Howells, Queen, Sellers and Christopher Buck -- hitting above the .400 mark. Sellers leads the team with a .480 average that includes seven home runs and a team-high 50 RBI.
But there is a lot more to this team than skill. There is a sense of urgency among the players, all but one of whom attend Lackey.
"We talked about it before the season and we said we've got to win every game this year, we've got to go undefeated," Sellers said. "This season was dedicated to Derek, so we just had to do it. We know how much this season means to their entire family."
And though the Woods agree it has been helpful to the grieving process, it almost never came about. In late December, just weeks after the accident, Kenny Wood sent a letter to the Little League president informing him that he did not wish to coach this season. It had been a heart-wrenching month -- one that included the opening of Christmas presents Derek had purchased, wrapped and put under the tree prior to his death -- and Wood could not fathom coaching without him. But when Derek's birthday rolled around in February -- Valentine's Day -- Laurie Wood, his mother, began urging her husband to rescind his resignation.
"I told him he needed to do it for Derek," said Laurie Wood, who sits with her black White Sox cap, which just like the team's has Derek's initials and former jersey number -- 8 -- embroidered on the back, and Derek's old glove on her lap at every game. "He couldn't just let that team go. It took a lot of coaching and coaxing on my part to change his mind, but I think, to his relief, he did."
The season was dedicated to the memory of Derek Wood by Little League officials during opening day ceremonies. A plaque commemorating the dedication will be mounted on a wall at Ruth B. Swann Memorial Park -- a wall that will be built by the Wood Steel Company -- this fall.
His name also will be carried on with the Derek C. Wood Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will award $1,000 each year to a Lackey graduate. The money, which Derek had saved since childhood to pay for his own education -- he had completed one semester at Charles County Community College and, on the day of the accident, received an acceptance letter to the University of Maryland -- will now be used to help others pay for their education.
Still, the days since Kenny Wood changed his mind, by all accounts, have been bittersweet.
"The winning is great, but it doesn't make this season any easier on anyone in our family," said Laurie Wood, who is much more outspoken than her husband and youngest son. "I can honestly say it's been horrendous. We were a very close-knit family -- a foursome. Now, we're a threesome and it's a different life. I think we all feel that the best days are behind us.
"But to have this season dedicated to him, and for the kids to have shown so much determination and compassion, it just means so much. I think Derek's helping to push them. Our angel in the outfield. I don't know what we'd do without this team.
"We fall apart after every game, but they are always there to pick us up."