Greater Loudoun 2,
Greater Loudoun's Ben Brawley was taken aback -- and somewhat amused -- when a player from Missouri approached him at the kickoff banquet to the 16-year-old Babe Ruth World Series and asked if the Lions, the designated host team and Missouri's opening opponent, had even played a game together yet.
"I told him, 'Yeah, we've played like 40,' " Brawley said. "And he just looked at me all dumbfounded, like he didn't really believe me."
It's fair to assume that every visiting player in this World Series believes now.
Greater Loudoun posted a dramatic 2-1 victory over defending champion Syracuse on Tuesday night to go unbeaten in its first three games of pool play. The win secured the Lions the No. 1 seed in the National Division and a guaranteed bye in the opening round of single-elimination play, which begins today
"It doesn't get any bigger than this," said Scott Van Duseldorp, who came in to pinch-hit in the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday with the game tied at 1 and delivered a two-out single to left field to score David Ball. "Now we just have to keep it going."
The Lions also got an excellent complete-game from pitcher Chris Dzurilla, who had started but threw less than 40 pitches in three innings two days earlier against Mineral Area. Greater Loudoun had defeated Alabama, 2-1, and Mineral Area, 13-2, in five innings.
Greater Loudoun will next play at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow in the semifinal round.
"There's a big misconception about us," said Brawley, who, like many of his teammates, pumped his first in the air and turned to salute the cheering crowd of more than 2,500 when right fielder Rusty Smith cleanly fielded the last out of the game. "People thought we were going to come out here and get trounced or just walk through this thing. But we're showing we're a force to be reckoned with."
To be fair, though, the Missouri player probably wasn't trying to belittle Greater Loudoun with his question. It is not at all unusual for host teams to come together for the sole purpose of playing in the tournament. Unlike eight of the 10 teams in the series, which had to first win district, state and regional titles before advancing to the series, the host team is awarded its spot without having to qualify. (The 10th team, Fairfax, earned a spot as Virginia state champions.)
But Sam Plank said he decided, before ever applying to be the manager of the Greater Loudoun team, that he would do things differently if awarded the job. Also the varsity baseball coach at Stone Bridge, Plank started by handpicking coaches Brett Lewis of Heritage and Jason Bagby of Diamond Sports Training, both of whom were willing to make the same commitment as Plank.
"We were a package deal going into this thing, and we agreed from the start on the approach we were going to take," Plank said of his staff. "We knew it was going to take a huge commitment on the part of the players and the coaches to win in the end. So we chose players who not only had the talent but were also willing to dedicate themselves to this team. I don't think many people realize the amount of time we've put into this the last six or seven months."
They held their initial tryouts in the winter, and the players selected to the team worked together weekly throughout the high school baseball season. As soon as the high school season ended, they dived headfirst into a full schedule that included two out-of-town tournaments, dozens of area league games and plenty of practices. The team played or practiced, on average, four to fives times a week.
"We may be underdogs, but we're here to win," Casey Hartman said. "We haven't been working nine months for nothing. The coaches came into this saying that we were coming here to win, and we've all adopted that attitude."
It won't be easy, however, for Greater Loudoun -- at least, not given the tournament's history. No host team has won the 16-year-old division, which held its first tournament in 1994. Columbia Basin, Wash., here again this year, hosted the World Series in 2000 and finished second, the best finish by a host team in this age division.
Even more imposing is that in the history of Babe Ruth World Series tournaments, which dates back 52 years and spans six age divisions, only three host teams have claimed the championship.
"Maybe the odds aren't in our favor, but we've worked very hard to take the whole 'host team' role out of this equation," Plank said. "Our only concern, from the very beginning, has been figuring out what we need to do to win this World Series. That's still all that matters."