The Columbia Reds' players fought back tears as they gathered belongings and left Hillside Middle School in Northville, Mich., knowing it was the last time they would walk out of the dugout together.
They knew this day would come. But they believed the ending would unfold under different circumstances, with a victory instead of a defeat in the championship game of the National Amateur Baseball Federation's 16-and-under World Series.
For the Reds, a team composed mainly of players who live in Howard County, last weekend was the culmination of three summers of nonstop baseball. The team played about 50 games each summer, during which players at rival high schools worked together for a common goal: to win a national championship.
"It was so emotional because we had played together for so long, and to come so close was just tough to take," said center fielder Alex Bechta, a Centennial junior. "We knew this was going to be the last time we played together, and we were one win away from going out as champions."
That made a 15-6 loss to the Summit City Sluggers of Indiana, in which the Reds left the bases loaded four times, so disappointing. The Reds had waited all year for this game. They set their goal to reach this game last summer after losing early at NABF's 15-and-under World Series in Memphis.
Brady Baxter, a rising junior center fielder at Mount Hebron, remembers the two defeats last year -- a 1-0 loss to a team from Canada, followed by a 7-4 loss to a team from Tennessee.
"I'll remember those two games the rest of my life," Baxter said. "I'll remember how upset we were, and how it motivated us even more for this summer."
For most of this year's 16-and-under team, which includes several players who have been on the same summer team since sixth grade, the trip to Michigan signified closure. Only the top players will be invited to play for the Reds' 18-and-under team next year.
"It's like I've played my whole life with some of these guys and this team has pretty much been together for the past three summers, so we knew coming in this was our last shot together," said third baseman Austin Harclerode, a Centennial junior.
The Reds went 36-9 and placed third in the Baltimore-Metro Baseball League, behind the Frederick Hustlers and Carroll County's Maryland Cardinals.
The Reds then won the double-elimination Region IV tournament, beating the Cardinals, 9-4, in the semifinals before posting a 17-10 victory over the Harford Sox. The Reds advanced to the NABF World Series with eight other region winners and a team from Northville, Mich., which earned an automatic bid as the host team.
"Unfinished business -- it's been our motto all year," said Reds Coach Tim O'Brien before the World Series. "It's not often that you get a second chance to win a national championship."
The Reds won their pool by going 3-1 and advanced to the championship game after posting a 5-0 semifinal victory over a team from Hamilton, Ohio, in what Baxter described as their "best game of the season."
But the Reds, whose run through the tournament centered on timely hitting, ran out of offense against the Sluggers, who jumped out to a 9-2 lead and never looked back.
"Before we left the field, we stuck around for team pictures and pretty much reminisced about the past because we had a lot of great moments," said first baseman George Cavelius, a Mount Hebron junior. "We had the potential to win the championship, but we just had a letdown in our last game. We still had a great season."