A packed stadium, including many Greenville fans wearing Southeast yellow and black, await the start of Friday night’s game.
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Nearly two hours before Matthew Matthijs stepped in the batter’s box for the start of Greenville’s first game in the Little League Baseball World Series on Friday night, anticipation already buzzed throughout Howard J. Lamade Stadium.
Only a few seats remained unclaimed in four sections behind Greenville’s dugout on the third-base side of the 15,000-seat facility. There were players’ mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters who would not miss this moment.
“Bucket list” visitors who have had the LLWS on their to-do list for years but never made the trip claimed their spots, along with those who had some connection to Greenville Little League — no matter how big or small — who wanted to share in the experience.
They created a blanket of yellow and black, the colors of the Southeast champions that replaced the green and gray the North State all-stars donned through district, state and regional tournaments. And all to see 12-year-olds play on Little League’s biggest stage.
“It’s crazy how many people actually drove up here to support us and watch us play,” said Matthijs, who teamed with Chase Anderson and Carson Hardee on the first combined perfect game in LLWS history and a 6-0 win over Sioux Falls, S.D.
Anderson’s grandmother, Kathy, flew in from northern California to take in her first Little League World Series — and fulfill a promise.
“I told Chase a few years ago if he ever made it to Williamsport, I would be there.,” she said.
Kathy Anderson traveled to Morganton when North State captured the state title, then told her family she would see them in Williamsport.
“I don’t think they believed I was coming,” she said.
Memories of 1998
Nineteen years have passed since Wayne Hardee brought Greenville Tar Heel to compete in the LLWS – representing the first team from the city and only second from North Carolina at the time to make it to South Williamsport.
In many ways, though, Friday’s return seemed like his first visit.
“The first time seeing Lamade Stadium from the outside looking in, it was awesome,” he said. “I got chills. … It’s really just one of those memorable, unbelievable experiences.
”I’ve been the most excited to come back. My wife said, ‘You’re like a little kid,’ We had business last time, and I had to keep the kids together, but this is all fun now. … All we’re about is trying to stay cool, get some lemonade or go get a hot dog. … I’ve never had a Little League hot dog here, but I’m going to have one today.”
Wayne Hardee, manager of the 1998 Tar Heel team that reached the Little League World Series, and his son, Justin, a shortstop on the 1998 team, are back in South Williamsport this weekend to support Greenville North State.
Hardee’s team fell in the U.S. championship to eventual champion, Toms River, N.J., but created an opportunity for future teams. Hardee and the manager of international runner-up Canada suggested a consolation game, and Little League arranged it.
“That’s how we got bragging rights for third in the world,” Hardee said. “Since that time they have put in a consolation game.”
Hardee’s assistant in 1998, Mason Lilley, was right by his side again on Friday, seated just a few rows up from the plush, green stadium turf.
“It has brought back a lot of memories quickly, that’s for sure,” Lilley said. “I watch it
every year. You always like to see what’s going on. Every year, there was always a Greenville team saying, ‘We’re going to Williamsport,’ so it gave us something to shoot for. We realized it, so it gave them a goal at that point.”
Longtime Kiwanis coach Norm Bryant had all intentions of heading to the LLWS in 1998, but the threat of Hurricane Bonnie on eastern North Carolina changed his plans.
“I’ve regretted it since then,” he said.
With four Kiwanis players — Ashton Byars, JoJo Byrne, Will Casey and Cameron Greenway — on this year’s North State all-stars as well as Kiwanis coaches Mike Vaughn and Jake Allen, nothing was keeping Bryant back in Greenville.
“My eyeballs have been sweating a little bit,” he said. “It’s so surreal; it’s like a dream. I just hope we’re able to wake up with a World Series championship.”
Greenville teams already have produced an unprecedented summer of success with regional titles in ages 8-10, 9-11 and 10-12 divisions. Bryant believes that’s a product of a tight-knit baseball community that competes intensely but sets aside rivalries when needed like the Greenville Baseball Gives fundraiser after Hurricane Matthew last October.
“I truly think that the Lord is just smiling down, not that the Lord cares any more for Greenville kids than he does South Dakota or Georgia kids or whoever is participating in this, but I think the Lord just smiled down on us and is giving us favor,” Bryant said.
Jim Casey missed out on the excitement of 1998 because that’s the year he began dental school. With his son, Will, playing this year, he’s taking it all in, especially with so many from back home in the stands.
“It’s emotional, to be quite honest,” Casey said. “I had heard throughout the week there were a lot a people coming. The further the week went on, the more I heard. And then when I walked up here, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ A guy I am sitting with from the Northwest asked, ‘Is the whole town here?’ This says a lot about Greenville. It’s neat to see how it’s turned out for this, regardless of what happens. The whole team has rallied around it.”
As longtime supporters of Little League, a trip to the LLWS has been on the “bucket list” of Mike and Wendy Ward.
The Wards’ oldest son, Shea, was 12 when the all-stars on this year’s North State team entered the league. Their youngest son, Connor, is 11 and played for Pepsi this year.
They considered following the team to Warner Robins,Ga., for the regionals but held out for a possible trip to Williamsport.
“It’s always been on our bucket list to come to Williamsport … and knowing every one of these kids and every one of these parents and every one of these coaches, we said if this was on our bucket list there’s no better time to come,” Mike Ward said.
And he has not been disappointed.
“I’m 42 years old, and I walked up in here and I got chills,” Ward said. “Until you experience it, you really can’t describe it.”
Ward said the turnout solidifies Greenville reputation as a baseball town.
“I think it shows how true a baseball community Greenville is,” he said. “You always hear it around town. ‘Greenville is a baseball community, a baseball community’ but actually coming here and seeing we’ve got what, four sections filled up, it really goes to show how dedicated Greenville is to baseball and how tight-knit Greenville is.
“During the season, North State and Tar Heel want to tear each other’s head off, but once one of them wins the district, it’s time to get on board with Greenville.”
The support does not go unnoticed by those in the dugout. North State manager Brian Fields said he was a bit overwhelmed Friday when he looked into the stands and saw how the Greenville community had turned out.
“It doesn’t surprise me, but did I think it was going to be really like that?” Fields asked. “They were loud. They were like the 10th man up there.
“ … Greenville is a baseball community. They have been behind us. It’s just amazing to see
everybody get behind these boys and support us. We know it’s there. We haven’t been home much, but we know what the community is like back there. These boys, I think they drive off that a little bit.”