Two very different Columbia County-based travel baseball teams started play July 21 in the United States Specialty Sports Association Global World Series.
Both left Charleston, S.C., four days later as champions, surviving a field that included teams from as far north as Connecticut and as far south as Louisiana.
The 10-under Columbia County Bulldogs -- a team that has been together for several years -- won the Majors division, the tournament's highest level.
The 13-under Stars Baseball squad -- in its first season of competition -- took the crown in the AAA division, a level just below Majors.
Bulldogs have been dominant
Since the team was started in 2008, the Columbia County Bulldogs have posted a record of 115-37. They have won 18 tournaments in the top level of USSSA competition. They have played in several states, and in June traveled to Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, to play in a big tournament.
Still, they had not won a World Series. The USSSA has two World Series every year, and teams choose which one to play. The other is the Elite 32 in Orlando, Fla.
Last year, the Bulldogs finished runner-up to the East Cobb Braves from the Atlanta area in a 7-4 championship game. Coming so close that time was tough, said Eric Becker, a second baseman and pitcher.
"Well, we played one of the best teams in the country (in that game), so it was pretty good holding them to seven runs," he said.
After going 6-0 to advance to this year's final, the Bulldogs faced the top-ranked team from South Carolina. It was a team that had beaten the Bulldogs in both of their previous meetings.
"I think we had more confidence because it was the World Series," said Eric, whose father, Jeff, is one of the team's coaches. "It's a way bigger tournament than the other ones."
In a tight game against a team that had lost just three games all year, the Bulldogs prevailed 6-5. Scoring six runs was notable in itself, considering the opponent had allowed only two total runs in six games.
For the tournament, coach Wesley Teston said seven pitchers contributed on the mound. None of them allowed more than two earned runs per outing.
At the plate, three different players -- Dantavian Stephens, Levin Lackey and Malik Germany -- hit home runs.
"Our team, when we hit the ball, we hit it far," said Blake Teston, who pitches and plays third base.
Of its 12 players, the team includes nine players from Columbia County and one each from Richmond, Lincoln and Aiken counties.
First-year team tough to beat
When teams enter their first competitive season in USSSA play, they are almost always entered into AA division play. That's because the organization figures those teams might have a hard time competing with more established teams.
Stars Baseball coach Billy Gamblin lobbied successfully to get into AAA to challenge his players.
"They try to keep it on a competitive level," Gamblin said of the policy of teams starting out at the bottom and working their way up. "I felt like we were going to be better than that."
Gamblin admits the team wasn't playing great baseball at first. With time, though, the players started to get used to one another and get more comfortable.
"We have a group of kids that were willing to put in a lot of hard work and time," he said. "I told them, eventually, we'd be better and get good. With time and effort, we did."
Stars Baseball lost its opening game at the World Series.
"We made a lot of errors, and we didn't hit the ball very well," said Conner Dowling, who played second base for most of the tournament.
"But during the tournament, our bats started to heat up," added Dowling, the team's smallest kid whom Gamblin calls "Peewee."
Stars Baseball won its final three games in pool play. The 3-1 record meant the team just missed out on getting into the Majors bracket, putting them in AAA.
Two wins in the elimination rounds -- including an extra-inning win over the Goose Creek (S.C.) Diamondbacks -- advanced the team to the championship.
As fate would have it, the opponent in the final was the same one the Stars had lost to in the opening game.
Against the East Metro Titans, from the Atlanta area, Stars Baseball won 5-3. Wilfredo Colon was the winning pitcher.
"If it wasn't for my team and the defense, then I wouldn't have won that game," he said. "They helped a lot."
Don't question this team's solidarity. About half of the players, plus the ball boy, Mason Dodd's 10-year-old brother, Ethan, got matching mohawks before the tournament. They did so knowing full well they'd still have them when school starts in a week or so.
Among the roster of 13 players, 10 hail from Columbia County, two live in Lincoln County, and one resides in Richmond County.
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