It was two weeks ago Friday that a team of 12-year-olds, calling themselves the Hickory Hornets, did what 11 teams before them had done: Walk onto the field with a banner proclaiming them as Harford County's host team for the Cal Ripken World Series. That's where the similarities end. This team was different, and it didn't take long for people to notice.
When Colton Knoble belted his way to the series' annual Home Run Derby title that opening night, that wasn't different. A year ago, Trent Gast-Woodard of the Hornets became the first Harford County host player to achieve such an honor.
Knoble and his teammates took the field minutes later and defeated Middle Atlantic champion Bear, Del., 5-1. Any win in World Series play is important, but this one was significant. Harford teams had won a handful of games in the previous 11 series tries, but none had won out of the gate. Hickory also posted wins over Denver, Homewood, Ill., and Prince George's County, and finished with a best-ever 4-2 series record on its way to becoming the first host team to advance to the U.S. championship.
That first game against Delaware was the only one in which leadoff hitter Garrett McIlhenney did not reach base in the opening inning. Of the six games Hickory played, McIlhenney reached base and scored in the respective first inning four times.
McIlhenney's play earned him a couple of post-series awards, including being named the United States batting champion. McIlhenney led all series hitters with a .667 batting average. He had 12 hits in 18 at-bats, with seven singles, three doubles and two home runs. His 12 runs scored were also a series best.
"I've been thinking of this moment since I was 7 years old," McIlhenney said after Hickory's loss to West Raleigh, N.C., in the U.S. championship game. "Getting here to this game, I couldn't ask for anything better."
Better may have come with his other award, a spot on the All-World Series Team as a second baseman. And he's left-handed, a rarity for that position.
Teammate Philip Winfield also garnered All-World Series Team honors as an outfielder. Winfield was a steady defender in left field for Hickory. At the plate, Winfield was also steady, hitting second behind McIlhenney. Winfield finished 6-for-10 for a .600 average. He had three singles, a double, triple and home run. Winfield drove in five runs and scored 10. The long home run he hit came in the U.S. championship, a game in which Winfield was hit by a pitch three times, one before his blast and twice after.
After the game, Winfield was realistic about the situation.
"I thought it was intentional," Winfield said of the multiple hit by pitches. "Once, that's OK, twice you start to question it, three times, something's wrong. It's not just the mechanics; three times he's doing it to pitch around you."
Winfield also led the team with eight walks.
"Let me just say this — this is a homegrown team," manager Russell Metz said after a win over in-state rival Prince George's County. "All of my players probably live within 10 miles of each other — Bel Air, Harford County area; I live in Churchville."
Two more of the Hickory kids received All-Defensive Team accolades. Knoble made the list as a first baseman, and Ryan Ishak as an outfielder.
"I've had most all of them since they were 7 years old," Metz said. "When you pull that together, here's that camaraderie that you can't get when you pull a player in from this team or that team."
The Hickory team is 12 players strong. Like any team, some are more recognized at times than others. All players, though, are vital to a team's success.
Hickory's roster includes Tyler Leach, Grant Duemmel, Tyler Schimming, Spencer Metz, Andrew Rickard, Bobby Duffy, Hunter Wright and Austin Rohlfing.
"I've got 12 kids that just want to go out and play baseball," Metz said. "These kids know what they all can do for each other."
Metz also acknowledged his coaches, Joe McIlhenney and Matt Rohlfing.
"Thank God I had great coaching," Metz said.