Alabama and South Carolina were not unfamiliar opponents with each other when the two 12-and-under baseball teams squared off in the "O" Zone championship game of the Dixie Youth Baseball World Series on Thursday night in Ruston, La.
The club from Edgefield County, S.C., had handed the Auburn squad its only loss of the double-elimination tournament on Tuesday, but Auburn Orange battled all the way back to force a winner-take-all showdown and returned the favor.
"Our guys are really grateful to have a second chance at them," Auburn coach Josh Jackson said.
Auburn Orange made the most of their second chance. After being held to just one run in seven innings, it exploded for six runs in the first four innings and held on for a 6-3 championship game victory. After finishing as the Dixie Youth World Series runners-up a year ago, Orange rallied to capture the ultimate prize this year.
"It is a huge accomplishment," Coach Jackson said. "I don't know how many thousands of teams there are in Dixie Youth Baseball. They all play in sub-district, district and state tournaments and the last 12 show up at the World Series. We traveled seven hours to the middle of northern Louisiana. We've been cooped up in hotel rooms all week, but we know that all of our friends and family at home are watching."
The South Carolina squad got its bats rolling in the first inning as Auburn Orange's Sam Jackson struggled to find his command in the bottom of the first. A three-run double with two outs cleared the bases and gave Edgefield County a 3-0 lead.
"They are a really dangerous opponent so we are going to have to pitch them well and play defense," Coach Jackson said before the game.
Just like it has had all World Series long, Orange had a quick response and it came from the bottom of the order with No. 8 hitter Harrison Geiger hitting a two-run double down the right-field line with two outs in the top of the second. Auburn stranded a pair of runners in scoring position and Edgefield County was able to hang on to the one-run advantage.
"Every single boy on this team has contributed to our success," Coach Jackson said. "(They have) great attitudes and play together as a team. We don't have any one guy that we have to rely on. It is truly a full 12 and they did it together."
Sam Jackson settled in on the mound with two scoreless innings allowing his offense a chance to strike and they did just that in the top of the fourth.
Five straight Auburn batters reached to begin the frame highlighted by a Ty Hudson RBI double to tie the game and RBI singles from Harrison Short and Colton Plan. After South Carolina recorded the first out of the inning, Hank Hudson singled home another run to make the lead 6-3.
Sam Jackson made sure the Orange lead held up by throwing three more scoreless innings to finish the game. Jackson pitched a complete six-inning game and allowed just three runs on four hits while striking out seven.
The boys, who will likely never all play together on the same team again as they get older, now have a memory that their coach believes they will cherish forever as the time they were all world champions together.
"I know this is an experience the boys will remember for the rest of their lives," Coach Jackson said.
Orange started the tournament with a pair of wins over teams from Georgia and Louisiana.
In the 11-1 opening-round win over Georgia, Ty Jones led the offensive attack with two hits, a walk, three runs scored and a two RBI while also throwing all four innings and allowing just one run on two hits.
"We came out of the gate the first two games really well with our pitching," Coach Jackson said. "Ty Jones threw a great game the first game and then Sam Jackson threw a really good game the second game."
Against the home-town team from Ruston, Orange was able to hold off a late rally for a 6-3 win. Sam Jackson pitched five innings and allowed just two runs on two hits before Ethan Grooms recorded the final three outs to seal the win. Hank Hudson was Auburn's top offensive producer going 2-for-2 with three RBI.
"Last year, the Auburn "O" Zone team made it to the finals of the World Series and there are five kids on our team now who were on that team," Coach Jackson said. "The team that beat us in the championship team was Ruston."
Adversity struck in the third game of the tournament for Auburn as they went to extra innings with the team from Edgefield County, South Carolina.
Grooms, Weston Luther and Jones combined to pitch six shutout innings, but South Carolina's pitchers were able to match until the top of the seventh when Will Whatley led off with a double and and scored with a nifty slide at the plate on a groundout by Hudson.
South Carolina answered in the home half of the seventh with a one-out, two-run single to give Edgefield County the 2-1 walk-off win.
"We lost to Carolina and I feel like our boys knew we could have won, but it is the game of baseball and sometimes it doesn't go your way," Coach Jackson said. "I don't think that the loss caused any one player on our team to believe in our team any less."
In the double-elimination tournament, Auburn Orange didn't have time to hang any heads as the team faced Texas in a win-or-go-home showdown. Texas rallied with two runs in the top of the sixth to tie the game at 5-5.
Auburn had the answer, however, with Hudson singling with one out in the inning and advancing to third with two outs to set the table for Harrison Short. Short didn't disappoint and a singled home Jones for the walk-off victory, 6-5.
"They just came ready to play," Coach Jackson.
Auburn completed its run back to the title game with a 3-2 win over Louisiana on Thursday morning. Grooms and Colton Plan each had two hits in the game while Grooms pitched 5 2/3 innings of two run baseball and Luther picked up the one-out save. Luther literally saved the game with a heady throw to cut down the runner at third before the game-tying run could cross the plate.
"Ethan Grooms pitched a great game," Coach Jackson said.