Months of training and a 40-game summer schedule prepared the Greater Loudoun Lions for play in the 16-year-old Babe Ruth World Series. But not even the 16 players on the team were completely aware of where they stood entering the 10-team tournament last week at Fireman's Field.
Greater Loudoun's history as a host team had produced mixed results. In 1998, when the 16-year-old World Series first came to Purcellville in 1998, Greater Loudoun finished among the top four teams. Three years later in the 16- to 18-year-old World Series, however, the host team was winless in four games.
This year's squad quickly proved things would be different. With a 2-1 victory over World Series regular Mobile, Ala., on the first night, the Greater Loudoun players' confidence began to grow.
"We really didn't know what to expect before," shortstop Conor Mullee said. "We had heard there were good teams in the tournament from Texas and California. We started thinking they would all be 6 foot 5, 400 pounds. When we beat Alabama in the first game, we really started to believe in ourselves."
It carried through another four games -- three of which were also by dramatic one-run margins -- as Greater Loudoun reached the championship game. The run finally ended Saturday with a 10-3 loss to Syracuse, N.Y., which won the World Series for the second straight year.
The Lions became the second host team in the age group's history to advance to the final, joining Columbia Basin, Wash., in 2000. Greater Loudoun's finish, and the sparkling way in which it played during the course of the week, will leave a lasting impression on Manager Sam Plank.
"To get second place as a host team, that's a great accomplishment," Plank said. "Once it settles in, I think they'll realize it. This is a very close team. These are friendships they'll cherish for a long time."
Greater Loudoun pulled off its shocking run by winning four games by one run in front of partisan, hometown crowds that sometimes numbered more than 3,000 in Purcellville.
Even with that support, the Lions ran out of steam in the final. They fell behind early against Syracuse and never mustered any of the timely hits that had proved so decisive in the earlier rounds. Syracuse scored seven runs in the sixth and seventh to pull away.
"I thought we did a really good job in the tournament," Mullee said. "Still, I would have really liked to win it, but to go 5-1 and make the final, we had a great tournament."
After the stellar week, several Greater Loudoun players earned post-tournament awards. Outfielder James Timbers was chosen to the all-tournament team; pitcher Chris Dzurilla and Mullee were named to the all-defensive team.
The team, comprising 16 players from nine schools and directed by Stone Bridge's Plank, began workouts last fall and continued training together until play started this summer.
All of it built toward the World Series. And even with four wins in hand last week, Greater Loudoun earned its most impressive victory in the semifinals.
The situation looked bleak after a first inning during which Stamford took a 5-0 lead. But Greater Loudoun chipped away, scoring three on a bases-loaded triple in the fifth by Jason Lombard, tying the game in the sixth and, after allowing a run in the seventh, coming from behind again to win on a single by Mullee.
Mullee was swarmed by his jubilant teammates and Plank, who raced from the third-base coach's box and joined the mob around Mullee at first base.
"I like the two weeks off, but I'm really going to miss the intensity of the games," Mullee said. "I'll probably never play games like that ever again in my life."