by Cam Higgins
“Should I use the autograph I’ve been practicing, or just sign my normal name?” Few 13-year-olds get the chance to ask their coach that question, but then again, Dante Defranco and his fellow players on the West Raleigh All Star Little League team are not your average middle-school athletes.
Their victory in the Cal Ripken 12 U U.S. Championship in Aberdeen, Md., on Aug. 17 marks the 2013 West Raleigh Ripken All Star Team members as undisputed standouts. The boys also continue a tradition that has taken root in this corner of our capital city. Theirs is the fourth team from the West Raleigh Baseball Association to take home a national championship title in the past decade.
This team’s journey – like those of the champs who came before them – began at the West Raleigh Exchange Club Park, where the leathery smack of baseballs landing in gloves and the metallic ping of line drives can be heard year-round.
On a recent evening, the boys took a moment to bask in their championship glow. Wearing their newly earned Team USA hats at jaunty angles, they gathered on the clubhouse patio overlooking West Raleigh’s three well-manicured fields to recall their adventure and to savor the brief off-season they enjoy in late August.
One-upping each other’s stories about their trip to the world series, the boys commented coolly on the younger players running drills in the fields below, and ribbed the team’s pitcher, Kyle Mott, 13, about his nickname, Gumby. Nearby, a group of coaches and team fathers chatted about the team’s remarkable accomplishment. “It was a wild ride,” says head coach Tyler Highfill, 43.
A wild ride, sure – but for a group of kids who were as prepared as they come, because this little league club is anything but run-of-the-mill.
Every year, more than 400 kids compete for handfuls of slots on West Raleigh teams. Those who make the cut practice roughly two-and-a-half times more than they would in a less-demanding organization. But the key ingredient in what Highfill terms West Raleigh’s “recipe for success” is the league’s emphasis on producing well-rounded, mentally tough players who are as comfortable hitting and running the bases as they are in the outfield.
That “recipe” has cooked up numerous regional and national titles and produced local legend Josh Hamilton, the first pick in the 1999 Major League draft and a current player on the Los Angeles Angels.
With those large shoes to fill, the Ripken All Star team began its rigorous summer schedule June 1. Chosen as All Stars from the regular season’s teams, this 12-boy crew played in sticky summer heat four times a week and travelled to regional tournaments nearly every weekend, all with hopes of qualifying for the Cal Ripken World Series.
It was a schedule that instilled more than discipline and skill. It made them a tight-knit group of friends. “We work as a team really good,” says pitcher and shortstop Ryan Sholar, 13.
Highfill agrees: “The kids go out there and try to beat each other’s brains out on the field, then after the game they’re running around playing tag and having a drink at the concession stand. They’re buddies, there’s sleep overs and birthday parties. They’re friends that play baseball together.”
After working their way through the local district finals and winning the Southeast regional title, the boys reached the world series in Maryland on Aug. 9. Wearing jerseys that read “Southeast” to designate the entire region they now represented, West Raleigh played before huge crowds in the Ripken baseball complex. “The stadium made you feel like you were in a minor league or major league baseball game,” says catcher and outfielder Sam Highfill, 12.
Even as the pressure rose, the boys’ commitment to one another remained firm. Every game, the West Raleigh players tied their cleats with pink laces to support their third baseman Kohl Abrams, 12, whose grandmother underwent surgery for breast cancer the day of West Raleigh’s 6-4 win in the semifinals against Pacific Southwest. They were big-hearted in other ways, too. Through the League of Dreams program, the team welcomed two batboys when they arrived in Maryland. Connor and Patrick Smith, brothers with cerebral palsy, sweated alongside West Raleigh, shared in the highs and lows of the tournament, and celebrated in the raucous dog piles that followed the team’s string of increasingly high-stakes victories.
The day after their triumph over Southwest, West Raleigh faced New England in a rollercoaster U.S. championship game. The old baseball adage that good pitching beats good hitting rang especially true. West Raleigh pitchers limited New England to three hits, while timely hitting by the Raleigh boys cinched the 7-3 victory. In a post-victory celebration that called to mind something you’d see on ESPN’s Sportscenter, the West Raleigh team rewarded their player of the game, Adam Stuart, 12, with a pie in the face.
Set to play Japan, which had snagged the Cal Ripken International Champions title, the boys – who now had the honor of swapping out their Southeast jerseys with ones proclaiming “Team USA” – had little time to recuperate.
The next day, West Raleigh suffered a rough 11-1 loss to Japan, which took home its third consecutive title. “You couldn’t get anything past them,” Sholar says. As the Japanese team drew from the entire nation’s pool of youth baseball players, that’s understandable. But the West Raleigh boys kept their chins up and returned home as national champions.
The only downside to their big adventure? According to pitcher and year-round school student Mott, “We had to do homework while we were there.”