WINCHESTER — After falling to the bottom of the Babe Ruth Southeast Region baseball tournament after two days, the Winchester Hornets climbed past the rest of the seven-team field to plant their flag at the top of the mountain on the fifth day.
After winning the championship game of the Southeast Region on July 31 in Altamonte Springs, Fla., Winchester Baseball’s 13-year-old team will compete in the Babe Ruth World Series in Glen Allen, which is just outside of Richmond. The 10-team tournament begins Friday and goes through Aug. 19.
Winchester Baseball has plenty of plenty of World Series experience. Area residents came out in great numbers for the 2011 and 2014 Cal Ripken World Series — a division of Babe Ruth — that Winchester Baseball hosted.
But Winchester manager Frank Ritter said from what he understands, this year’s 13-year-old team is the first Winchester Baseball team to advance to a Babe Ruth World Series as a Southeast Region champion since a 12-year-old team competed in the 1991 World Series in Colorado.
Winchester had an 0-2 record after its first two games of the four-game pool competition and had given up a tournament-worst 19 runs. After head-to-head competition, runs allowed was the No. 2 tiebreaker for advancing into the four-team semifinals.
But the Hornets won their next four games, including a 5-2 championship win over the Greenville (NC) team that beat Winchester 14-4 in pool play to drop the Hornets to 0-2.
“In years past, this team would get down on themselves,” said Ritter, who has coached the majority of the players on this year’s team for four years. “But this year, we’ve lost early and come back and won tournaments that we’ve been in. I always tell them that how I gauge them is by how much heart they show, and this year here they have definitely stepped up their game.
“The kids believe they can win. I say the game is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. So if you believe in yourself that you can do something, then you’ve got a chance. These kids have a little bit of grit to them. Most teams would have laid down after losing their first two games.”
The 10-team field will feature three teams from Virginia (Winchester, state champ Manassas and host Glen Allen) and seven other regional champions from around the country. The field will be divided into two five-team divisions (the American and National), with Winchester competing in the National and playing its first game against Manassas at 4 pm on Friday. The top three teams in each division will advance to the championship bracket that starts Aug. 17. The bottom two teams in each division will play in a consolation bracket and will be joined by the first-round losers in the championship bracket.
Pitcher/third baseman Lane Herring of Gore and the rest of the 12-member team are more than ready to show what they can do. The Hornets will head to Glen Allen on Wednesday.
“It’s really exciting,” said Herring while taking a break from Friday’s batting practice, which was held indoors at a facility on Valley Avenue because of storms in Winchester. “It’s going to be a great experience for all of us.”
Each of the Winchester Hornets players are 13 years old except for shortstop Brady Smith, who is 12.
The Winchester Hornets have a lot in common with the last area youth baseball team to play in a World Series.
The 2015 Frederick County National Team that won the US Championship of the Junior League World Series (13- and 14-year-olds) featured the same coaching staff as this year’s Winchester Hornets — manager Frank Ritter and assistant coaches Mike Usa and Herby Kline.
Ritter and Usa have had the chance to coach their sons on both teams. Frankie Ritter and Michael Usa — both members of the 2022 Shenandoah University baseball team — played on the 2015 Junior League team, and their younger brothers Cole Ritter (second base/third base) and Nicholas Usa (first base/center field) are each on the Winchester Hornets.
Other team members are pitcher/third baseman Dylan Apfel, pitcher/center fielder Cade Delawder, catcher Tripp Fitzgerald, catcher Gavin Even, second baseman Jude Cusick, left fielder Brooks Gerhart, right fielder Brayden Phillips and right fielder Logan Lafollette.
Ritter said Winchester Baseball President Bob Brown made him an offer to come back to Winchester Baseball four years ago after Ritter had previously coached Frankie in the organization for five years, with Frankie’s age 12 his last year.
“Knowing Mike and Herby, we all decided to go back and take another group and see what we can do, and try to get to another World Series,” Ritter said. “It’s worked out.”
Winchester started off by sweeping Greater Loudoun in a best-of-3 series to capture the District 9 Tournament and advance to the six-team State Tournament from July 14-18 in Vienna.
The Hornets defeated Greater Vienna 4-3 to open the double-elimination State Tournament, but then lost to Manassas 5-4 to fall into the losers’ bracket. Winchester won three straight games to reach the championship round. The Hornets started by beating North Fairfax County 7-1, then won two straight eight-inning, extra-inning games (a regulation game is seven innings).
Winchester beat Greater Vienna 12-8, then followed with an 11-10 win over Arlington to advance to the championship round. Needing to beat Manassas twice to capture the state title, the Hornets won the first game 1-0 but lost the second 5-3. Since the 13-year-old World Series is in Virginia, Manassas’ state championship clinched a World Series berth.
Still, Winchester and third-place Arlington qualified for the Southeast Region championships with their State Tournament performances. (The Southeast Region Tournament featured four teams from Florida in addition to Winchester, Arlington and Greenville. Manassas did not need to compete in the Region Tournament.)
Had Winchester not beaten Greater Arlington in extra innings, its postseason would have ended.
“They play for each other more now,” Ritter said. “They play as a family is the way I look at it.”
The Regional Tournament did not start off the way anyone wanted. Ritter said the opening 5-4 loss to Tallahassee Leon was decided on a difficult call — a potential tying run was called out at the plate when Winchester thought the baserunner was safe. The Hornets then suffered the 14-4 loss to Greenville in the second contest.
“We made quite a few errors, which cost us big time,” Ritter said.
The Hornets just had to dig deep to rebound.
“We just needed to battle back,” said Apfel, of Winchester. “We never give up.”
Winchester beat Lutz 9-4 on July 29, then on July 30 defeated Altamonte Springs, which came in with a 3-0 record.
Winchester needed to only beat Altamonte Springs to advance to the semifinals, and Ritter thought the Hornets needed to win and could only allow two runs or less in order to advance. The tournament director told him that a win would be enough though based on head-to-head tiebreakers, but Ritter didn’t tell his players that. They responded by shutting out Altamonte Springs 4-0.
The No. 4 seed in the four-team championship bracket, Winchester defeated top-seeded Altamonte Springs again in the semifinals, this time 6-3. The Hornets then avenged their previous loss to No. 2 Greenville, which came into the championship game with a 4-1 record.
“It felt really good to come back and beat those guys,” said Even, who lives in Stephens City.
“[Greenville] hit the ball real well in the first game, and we kind of adjusted our pitching to what we thought would work,” Ritter said. “Our batters were a little more aggressive, and that helped out.
“Our three main pitchers threw well the last three games, and the last three games we didn’t make errors. We were making every play we should make.”
Ritter said Winchester also embodied its “next man up” mantra in the regional tournament. Ritter said Even picked the team up by catching the last three games with Fitzgerald not feeling well.
“We’ve had a few kids go down and get hurt, then the next kid’s up and everybody fills in where they need to fill in,” Ritter said. “They play hard together.”
What means the most to Ritter is that his players play the game the right way. Ritter found out from Brown that an umpire in Altamonte Springs had called to commend the team for how respectful the coaches and players were throughout the tournament, and that he would be cheering for them in the World Series.
“To me, that means more than anything,” Ritter said. “Because at least it means you feel like you’re doing your job right.”
After opening with Manassas on Friday, Winchester will play the Pacific Northwest champ at 1 pm on Saturday; New England at 10 am on Aug. 15; and the Middle Atlantic at 10 am on Aug. 16. The championship game is Aug. 19.
Games will be broadcast on HiCast Sports Network (https://watch.hcst.me/index.html) and live scoring can be viewed on GameChanger Classic (https://gc.com/tmt/summer-2022/2022-babe -ruth-world-series-13u-62d5c47613645b96f5901bb3).