PITTSBORO — As the days get hotter, the pools get cooler and the ice cream melts faster, the sights, sounds and familiar feelings of summer are finally creeping their way back into our lives.
And in what has become an unofficial summer tradition unlike any other, youth baseball in Chatham is, once again, taking the county by storm.
Last week, teams from both East and West Chatham won their respective district tournaments for the second straight season, including the East Chatham 8U All-Stars and the West Chatham 12U All-Stars, securing each team a berth in their respective state tournament in early July.
East Chatham also saw its 9U squad win the Little League District 2 TOC Championship, meaning it will also be featured in the state tournament next month.
Last Wednesday, the East Chatham 8U All-Stars took the field at Pittsboro Elementary, one win away from the district title, with only Davie County standing in their way.
Up to that point, East Chatham had scored 15 or more runs in each of its three tournament games — including a 15-3 win over Davie just two days earlier.
But even though a district championship was on the line, head coach Jimmy Simpson could tell something was off.
“In the first game against Davie, we played probably our best game of the year,” Simpson said. “I told the kids that I thought we played like the New York Yankees. We could play with anybody that night because we made every play in the field. We were focused.
“We had a night off after that, where Davie had to come back and play a loser’s bracket game against Kernersville, and to Davie’s credit, they found a good roll in that Kernersville game and they brought that focus against us the next day,” he continued. “We didn’t, and I blame myself as a coach. I just could not find a way to reach the team and bring that focus back.”
Davie ended up pummeling East Chatham in the potential tournament-clincher, earning a 16-7 win in what turned out to be East Chatham’s worst game on both sides of the mound.
Davie’s win forced a winner-take-all final game the following night, last Thursday, to see which team would take home the District 2 title.
Yet, despite faltering in the first game, East Chatham’s players came out with “a sparkle in their eye,” described Simpson, and not a single doubt in their minds. In their heads, they’d already won the title.
“We suffered that loss and it was really good for our kids from a learning standpoint because our goal is to get better every time we step on the field, and we may not get better physically, but we got better mentally in that loss,” Simpson said. “Our coaches didn’t really do anything, our kids get 100% of the credit. They walked into that ballpark (on Thursday) … and they were determined to have fun.”
In between innings, the coaches and players would have what Simpson called a “dance party” to stay loose, dancing to the music playing nearby and refusing to let the game get to them.
When it was all said and done, East Chatham came away with a never-in-doubt 23-2 victory over Davie in the highest-scoring performance of the tournament, claiming redemption and yet another District 2 title.
“In baseball, it takes a bunch of individuals to grow and go and (in the championship) those kids had that in them,” Simpson said. “They remembered that feeling from the night before and they didn’t want that feeling again. … They walked in with a focus that they were not going to allow that loss to happen on their watch and it was really great that they took it upon themselves.”
East Chatham’s dominant showing throughout the District 2 tournament is one for the history books. As a team, the 8U All-Stars scored 81 runs in five games — giving up 39 runs in the process — and had a mind-blowing .705 batting average.
“Those kids should get all of the credit for it,” Simpson said. “It was something special that our coaching staff is thankful to be a part of.”
What made the experience even more special for Simpson and his team was being able to play the entire tournament in Pittsboro, an advantage that not only helped them in terms of fan fare and travel, but one that was important for the community as a whole.
“We hosted the tournament this year and it was really nice,” Simpson said. “Eight teams from outside of Chatham came to Pittsboro and were a part of our community. They stayed in our hotels, ate in our restaurants and as a league, we hope to build that over the years and make Little League baseball a part of our community. Because as our community grows and embraces our sport and our league, we hope that we can give back to the community just like the community gives back to us because we couldn’t do it without them.”
The East Chatham 8U and 9U All-Stars will appear at the N.C. Little League state tournaments in Wilson from July 8-10.
With the way the West Chatham 12U All-Stars were playing last week, a district title was all but guaranteed.
In five games, they put on a defensive showcase, outscoring opponents, 42-16, en route to the N.C. Dixie Youth District 1 O-Zone title.
The performance left head coach Shawn Murray speechless.
“They never gave up. Defensively, we’re probably one of the best teams that I’ve seen,” Murray told the News + Record after the tournament win. “We had a couple of hiccups, but defensively, we were pretty tough.”
For five straight days, from June 18-22, the team had to make the trek to Polkton and back, totaling nearly 160 miles round trip. As the tournament wound down, Murray said the weight of that trip every day began to take a toll on them.
In West Chatham’s first two games — against Mt. Pleasant and Anson County, respectively — the team rolled to two victories with a combined score of 25-4.
Then, the exhaustion began to set in.
“You can figure, by Tuesday, we were all just tired,” Murray said. “You could tell the players were, but they just fought through it. I’m really proud of them. They did what they had to do.”
West Chatham’s final three games were a little closer, including a 4-3 win over Mt. Pleasant in the semifinals — an abnormally low score for a youth baseball game, Murray admitted.
“(Mt. Pleasant) had their best pitcher throw it against us. He was left-handed, and we didn’t see any left-handers in the tournament except for him,” Murray said. “You know how left-handers are. It doesn’t matter if they throw it slow or hard, it’s just a little different.”
In the semifinal game, West Chatham found itself in a three-run hole early, but the team “buckled down,” Murray said, and posted six total baserunners in the final three innings to climb back into it.
That was a much different tune than the championship game a day later, when West Chatham led Montgomery County, 7-0, going into the fifth inning. But a three-run home run in the fifth made it 7-3, setting up an all-time comeback opportunity for Montgomery in the sixth inning.
After scoring a trio of runs in the sixth, Montgomery County had runners on second and third bases with two outs, down by just a single run. With a hard-hitting batter up to the plate, Murray thought it was time to pull his starting pitcher, Hagen Purvis, a player that’d dominated for West Chatham for most of the tournament.
But Purvis had other plans.
“I went out to (Purvis) and I said, ‘Look, dude, you’re done’ and he said, ‘Coach, don’t take me out,’ and told me to walk the next guy and then he’d throw three straight curveballs and strike the last batter out,” Murray recalled. “And he did it, that’s what he did. I walked the next guy — it was the one that hit the home run — and that made the bases loaded. The next guy came up and he threw three straight curveballs and struck him out. You don’t see many 11-year-olds with that kind of confidence. He has no fear.”
When naming the players that contributed most to the perfect tournament run, Murray comes close to listing his entire team — Purvis included.
Shout-outs included relief pitcher Jackson Clark — who he deemed his “workhorse” for his ability to come in when needed and hold down the fort, including the semifinal game against Mt. Pleasant when he didn’t allow a hit or walk for three innings to keep his team in it — catcher Austin Morgan, Gavin Williams and Grant Copeland, who he called his most consistent hitter of the tournament.
And while last week may not have been a run quite like last season, where West Chatham outscored its opponents 56-1 and tore through the District 1 tournament, Murray said he hopes his team can learn from its close calls and redeem the 2021 team, which fell just short at the state tournament, one game away from the World Series.
For Murray, who announced this would be his last season coaching the team, that redemption arc is part of what fuels him.
“I’m really pushing them because that was a really tough loss and it still haunts me,” Murray said. “They want to get back and win it. They’re hungry.”
West Chatham’s 12U All-Stars will compete in the 2022 N.C. Dixie Youth Baseball O-Zone D1 State Tournament alongside five other teams, beginning on July 9 in Locust.
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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