Tennessee had not made an appearance in the Little League World Series since 1987, before Goodlettsville broke a 25-year dry spell and won the 2012 United States championship, then fell to Japan in the final game of the tournament.
Five years later, Joey Hale has taken a team back to Williamsport, Pa., for the international event.
“It’s kinda like ‘Groundhog Day’; I get to redo it,” said Hale, 47, after Goodlettsville’s 15-3, five-inning victory over Peachtree City, Ga., in the finals of last week’s Southeast Region tournament in Warner Robins, Ga.
“For me, I’ve already been. I know what to expect, what’s about to happen. A lot of these kids went to support us in 2012, but they were so young, they really have no idea what’s about to happen and how incredible it’s going to be.
“It’s 10 days of bliss. They’re going to be treated like royalty, they’re going to be household names, they’re going to play in front of bigger crowds than they’ve ever played in front of. No other organization allows kids to get the exposure at this age that Little League does. This is it. There’s nothing greater.”
The tournament, which features eight U.S. teams of 12-year-olds competing in two pools and eight teams from Asia-Pacific, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe/Africa, Japan, Latin America and Mexico competing in two pools, will start Aug. 18 with all games televised by ESPN. Goodlettsville will play the Northwest Region champion at 6 p.m. on the opening day.
It marks the fourth time in the last five years that Tennessee has been represented in the tourney, and all four appearances have been by a Nashville area team. South Nashville advanced as the Southeast Region champion in 2013 and ‘14.
Both teams play in the same district (District 7), and both represent leagues that joined the Little League sanctioning body in 2011.
“They went to the (Southeast) regional our first year in Little League and lost,” South Nashville coach Chris Mercado recalled. “We went last year and lost. So between us, we’re six-for-six in (winning the state tournament and) going to the regional, and we’re four-for-six in going to the World Series.
“Typically, whoever comes out of this district, you’re going to the region tournament.”
Goodlettsville defeated South Nashville twice in the District 7 tourney – 8-2 in a preliminary game and 2-1 in the finals – before going through the state tournament unblemished to clinch another berth in the region.
“They took care of everybody at state,” Mercado said. “We knew they had a good chance. They have a lot of good pitchers. Pitchers get you there.”
Zane McWilliams, who threw a one-hitter in the district final, pitched 3 2/3 innings against Peachtree City. Ethan Jackson led the way offensively with a pair of home runs, with Tanner Jones adding a longball to end the game via the 10-run mercy rule.
“So many leagues start with the goal of getting a team this far, but so few get to do it,” Hale said. “I believe this (District 7) is one of the toughest districts in the nation. Whoever wins it has a great chance of going to the World Series.”
For Hale and Goodlettsville, transitioning to Little League from Dixie Youth League was a competition-based decision. At the time, though, there was uncertainty as to how much the program was biting off.
“My motto was, let’s go see how good we are,” he said of his 2011 11-year-old team, which won the state tournament and advanced to the regionals before losing in the finals. “It was a feeling-out process to see how well we stacked up. We had no idea if we were good enough.
“The next year, we made the regional, we won 1-0 over (host) Warner Robins in the championship, we went to Williamsport and we played unconscious baseball for 10 days. It was a magical run I had no idea we could achieve.”
This week, he’s hoping for the same.
“I never had any idea we could make it that far once,” Hale said. “Twice is remarkable. How many districts can claim two teams that have been (to Williamsport) twice? It’s a testament to Nashville baseball in general. Middle Tennessee baseball is fantastic. The kids that live in our area are so talented at this particular sport.
“We’re fortunate as coaches to be able to coach kids this talented.”
Maurice Patton is a Franklin native and Middle Tennessee State graduate who has covered high school, collegiate and professional sports in the Nashville and Midstate area for nearly 30 years. See more of his work at mopattonsports.com and follow him on Twitter @mopatton_sports.