Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores again knocking on Williamsport's door
The Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores Little League team has made three trips to the holy land, the Little League World Series, over the years — in 1979, 2013 and last year.
A fourth, however, seemed like a pipe dream as late as the sixth and last inning of regulation in a state-tournament semifinal game last month in St. Clair.
"Oh man, I was close to having a heart attack on multiple occasions," said Kurt Barr, the team's head coach. "It probably took 10 years off my life, but it was worth it."
Down 4-0 with one out and nobody on in the sixth inning of the semifinal, Woods-Shores rallied to tie it, then won it in the eighth inning. Then, in the championship game, the team trailed 7-2 halfway through, but got hot and won, 12-7.
That earned Woods-Shores the Michigan spot in the upcoming, six-team Great Lakes Regional, which starts Sunday in Westfield, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis. The regional champion will advance to the Little League World Series Williamsport, Pa., later this month.
Michigan boasts exactly one Little League World Series champion, Hamtramck in 1959.
"They're pretty pumped, man," Barr said of the 13 kids, all 12 years old, on his roster. "This is kind of a whole different level from really anything any of them have experienced.
"This is gonna be quite an experience for these boys."
It's going to be hard to top the state tournament, though.
In the semifinals, Woods-Shores had racked up at exactly one hit until there was one out in the sixth.
Then, the team's No. 9 hitter, Jake Martin, singled to turn the lineup over. Two batters later, Jaren Purify hit a three-run home run. Two more batters later, down to the final out, Ryan Knaebel homered to tie it up and send the game to extra innings.
In the seventh, Bay City Northwest got the leadoff man to third with nobody out, before ace pitcher Brennan Hill struck out the side to keep it tied. Hill then pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, and the heroics came shortly thereafter. A leadoff walk by Reggie Sharpe (batting .700 this season) got things started, and Oliver Service drove a winning double that landed right on the chalk and rolled into the corner.
"I played baseball for almost 30 years of my life, and I've been coaching Little League for over 10 years," Barr said. "That was the best baseball game I have ever been a part of. That was pretty cool."
It got cooler in the championship game against Rockford. Woods-Shores found itself down five early, before the bats came alive. Home runs by Purify, Service and Preston Barr led the comeback, and clinched Woods-Shores' back-to-back trips to the Great Lakes Regional.
Of course, this team is all new from last year's team. There's not one player on the roster who made the trip to Williamsport in 2017.
"We're seen as the comeback kids. That has kind of been our label," said Barr, whose coaching staff also includes Melissa Henderson and Reggie Sharpe. "We were dead in the water in the semis, but these kids never quit.
"The special thing for these kids, they all know that when we play together as a team, and they trust each other, good things will happen.
"They wait for their opportunity and capitalize on that."
Earlier, Woods-Shores beat rival Grosse Pointe Farms-City, 4-2, in the championship game of the district tournament to advance to states.
The team's pitchers are Hill and Knaebel (who plays center field when he's not pitching). Elliott Nederhood plays left, Sharpe right, Purify third, Preston Barr short, Sharpe second, Cameron Schafer first and Jake Martin catcher. Ryan Henderson, Marwynn Matthews, J.J. Schoeck and Chase Mazey round out the roster.
Woods-Shores is one of three teams in the Great Lakes Regional from last year's tournament, along with Wausau (Wisconsin) and New Albany (Indiana). Woods-Shores opens the regional at 4 p.m. Sunday against Illinois. The semifinals are Aug. 9 and 10, and the championship game Aug. 11.
"The experience is gonna be really great for them," Kurt Barr said. "Today I got some pictures sent to me of them setting up the grandstands and ESPN's got their production scaffolding all set up and everything. This is gonna be quite the experience for these boys.
Little League Great Lakes Regional
When: Sunday through Aug. 11
Where: Westfield, Ind.
Teams: Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores, Tri Cities (Illinois), New Albany (Indiana), St. Matthews Baseball (Kentucky), New Albany (Ohio), Wausau National (Wisconsin)
At stake: A berth in the Little League World Series, set for later this month in Williamsport, Pa.
TV: ESPN+ through Wednesday; Semifinals (Aug. 9-10) and final (Aug. 11) on ESPN
Opening game: Michigan vs. Illinois, 4 p.m. Sunday