(L-R) Richard Barnhill, Justin Hardee, Wayne Hardee, Brack Massey, Alex White, Mason Lilley, and Mike Lilley.
By Luke Ramirez
Coming to the Little League® Baseball World Series is a yearly tradition for many fans and volunteers. But for one former LLBWS team, the homecoming trip has been 19 years in the making.
Tar Heel Little League from Greenville, N.C. competed in the 1998 LLBWS and have made their way back to Williamsport this year. If Greenville sounds familiar, that’s because the 2017 Southeast team hails from the same community.
“Our team’s experience is something that I have talked about for 19 years,” said Wayne Hardee. “I always said if a Greenville team comes back, we’re coming.”
Mr. Hardee was the manager of the 1998 Tar Heel team that was one game short of the world championship (eliminated by current New York Yankee Todd Frazier’s Tom’s River, N.J., American Little League team). Since then, the members of his team have enjoyed a brotherhood founded by their experience in Williamsport, Pa.
“The bond we have has never left us,” said Mike Lilley. “It really started here because of all the memories we made.”
The 1998 team put Greenville on the map after the performance in the tournament. Being able to relive the days when they played and soaking in the atmosphere as fans is something they have looked forward to for a long time.
“It gave me goosebumps when we first came through the gates and took a look around,” said Justin Hardee, son of Wayne, and shortstop on this year’s Southeast Region team. “It was a bucket list item for me to come back, and now that we get to cheer on another Greenville team, it makes it even more special.”
The former Little League stars laughed and reminisced together on top of Lamade Stadium’s famed terrace hill among the sea of spectators on hand to watch the games.
“Hitting a go-ahead home run in the U.S. semifinal game is something that has stuck with me since,” said Brack Massey, the team’s second baseman. “As a team, we made endless memories here.”
The former Greenville team has now passed the torch along to North State Little League (NSLL), having met with them a week before the LLBWS started. Wayne Hardee shared one last message with the team before their opening game on Friday night, “You’ve earned your way here. You have support here in Greenville, and all over the country so just have fun out there.”
The NSLL has taken the tournament by storm throwing a combined perfect game on Friday, a combined no-hitter on Sunday, while outscoring its opponents 22-0 in two games. The team has acknowledged their predecessors and how much the support they have.
“(The 1998 team) told us to be ready for the big stage, but no matter what we are already champions,” said pitcher and infielder Chase Anderson.
The Southeast Region Champions are off to a promising start to the tournament and with the 1998 team supporting them alongside the rest of their fans, could be a team to look out for.
“It was great to know that they were there to support us,” said North State LL’s pitcher and shortstop Carson Hardee. “It was a special feeling to me because maybe one day we’ll be able to do that for another team that makes it from Greenville.”