Little League baseball in Fort Mill has again reached a milestone. The little league all-star team representing Fort Mill and Tega Cay won the state title for the third time in the past five years and is just four wins away from a trip to the Little League World Series.
Fort Mill's Jeff Helms can't hide his excitement over the team's success. The Fort Mill police chief is head coach of the all-star team. His team won the S.C. Little League title at the state tournament in Easley recently. That title gives the team an entry to the Southeast Regional Tournament, Aug. 1-8 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Fort Mill will represent South Carolina for the tourney. Teams from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia make up the rest of the field. Fort Mill's first game will be Aug. 2 against Virginia.
The Aug. 8 championship game will be televised on ESPN. Game time is set for 8 p.m. The winner of the Southeast Regionals advances to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Fort Mill has now won three of the past five state titles.
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"It's pretty amazing," Helms said. This is his first time coaching the all-stars.
Scorebook keeper Lisa McCarley's son, Blake Hill, plays right field.
"Blake is excited and a little nervous. He knows Fort Mill has been to this tournament before and he wants to live up to the reputation that comes with it," she said.
To get to St. Petersburg, Fort Mill had to first win the District 3 tournament. They did so with four straight wins. The championship game went extra innings before they could dispose of Irmo, 7-6.
At the state tournament the team represented District 3 and faced teams from five other districts across South Carolina. Fort Mill beat Greenwood/Abbeville, 6-5, in the first game. Then Fort Mill won games against Greenville, 7-4, and Anderson, 7-5, to advance to the championship game.
The team had to beat Greenwood/Abbeville a second time to win the state title. Fort Mill built a 4-0 lead but gave up a couple of homers to tie the game. Fort Mill pushed across a run to take a 5-4 lead but still had to shut down the meat of Greenwood/Abbeville's lineup in the sixth and final inning.
"It's unbelievable, Helms said. "There weren't many dry eyes at the end of the game."
Helms said Fort Mill was either tied or trailed in each of its last five games in the fifth inning. But they found a way to win every time.
"I've never seen more of a team," Fred Corley said. His son Josh is a pitcher and third baseman on the team.
Helms isn't surprised the team won the state and likes their chances in St. Petersburg. Most of the kids on this team, made up of 12-year-olds, have played together for several years. They already and have two district titles and two state titles under their belts in younger age groups.
"This core group of players has been playing together since they were seven-year-olds. I've been coaching some of the kids since they were five. There is a reason these guys are so successful. They are the epitome of the word team," Helms said.
Fort Mill's team isn't made up of big kids. The team relies on pitching, defense and speed. Helms said all the teams they've played have had one or two big kids who can hit home runs.
But the team is comprised of kids.
Helms recalled a game this summer during a tournament in Myrtle Beach. His starting pitcher was seen texting a friend on his cell phone between innings in the dugout.
"I guess that means he wasn't feeling a lot of pressure. He was loose," Helms laughed.
Since that day, cell phones have been banned from the dugout.