It’s the kind of dream season that athletes rarely get to experience once in their sports career. A group of Hilton Head Island youth baseball players is representing the Lowcountry for their second shot at a national title in three years.
The Hilton Head 12-and-under Dixie Youth All Stars won the Division 1 state tournament on July 15 and are now headed to represent South Carolina in the Dixie Youth World Series in Laurel, Miss., beginning Aug. 7.
Team head coach Jeff Reilley said the kids’ exciting run has been a product of determination, team chemistry and a tenacious commitment to fundamentals.
“Everyone has a role and they all play it so well, they just go out and execute. The work they put in during practice, the fun and camaraderie they’ve built among themselves – it’s translating to big things on the field,” said Reilley, who is helming his first all-star team after seven years of coaching teams as part of the parent-run Hilton Head Baseball Association. “There are just no attitudes, no egos, amazing support from the parents. You can see the work the parents have put in with their kids – it’s just a group of respectful, hard-working young men.”
Five of the team’s players were part of an 8-and-under team that represented the island in the World Series in Lumberton, N.C., in 2018. That team finished second, just barely missing out on a national title.
Infielder A.J. Petro was part of the 2018 squad and said that experience has the team primed for their trip to Mississippi.
“You never underestimate a team, you just go in and say they’re as good as us, but we are as good as them. It’s just all about being there for each other on the field,” said Petro, who has been playing baseball since he was 2 and started T-ball at age 4. “I love this game. I love the pressure, I love the scenery, the friendships we make, the people we meet. But most of all, I love playing with my teammates.”
Petro said the team has plenty of fun off the field but is able to flip the switch to all business as soon as they set foot on the diamond.
“It’s just great to see how we have gelled,” said Petro, who counts long-time friends and teammates Jensen Boretti and Jackson Reilley as his biggest motivators. “It’s great to grow up with these guys, get to know them playing ball and know we’re going to pick each other up for every play.”
The team – composed of four 12-year-olds, seven 11-year-olds and one 10-year-old – has made lockdown defense their calling card throughout this run. The crew beat Beaufort, Colleton and Bluffton by a combined score of 33-0 to take the district title in mid-June. They started the state tourney in Moncks Corner with wins over Conway, Goose Creek, Midland and host Moncks Corner by a combined 42-6.
Pitcher Phoenix Shapiro has been the workhorse of the pitching staff, starting every game with catcher Johnny Carr. Coach Reilley and assistant coaches Hiram Rodriguez and Chris Feltner made sure to keep Shapiro’s pitch count below 40 pitches before taking over at catcher, so he’s able to start back on the mound the next game.
Starting right fielder Alan Wolf comes in to relieve Shapiro and has been so stellar, there is rarely a need for a third pitcher. The younger Reilley handles those duties when needed.
“We make contact, we have speed and we really push each other to excel at defense,” said outfielder Collin Lozan, who credits both the younger Reilley and Carr for their outstanding team leadership.
Lozan said he and Brandon Espinoza have taken the lead of keeping the mood light with jokes and laughs off the field.
“When we’re on the road, it’s usually one game a day, so there’s a lot of time to bond and goof around off the field,” Lozan said. “All business between the lines, but we really enjoy hanging out as well.” Both Lozan and Petro agreed that the hotel time together is the best part of the road trips.
The team has had group bonding outings to see the Savannah Bananas play and watching the newest Marvel movie, “Black Widow,” on Disney-Plus at the hotel during their most recent trip. There is a plan to take in a minor-league game in Alabama on the way to the World Series.
“A lot of the kids go to school together and Coach Rodriguez has been coaching travel ball with a lot of them and further building those on-field bonds,” Reilley said, giving Rodriguez – a former police officer from Miami – credit for helping the program take big steps forward.
“The travel ball has definitely helped. It’s like we know what each other is thinking and how we’re each going to react no matter what happens,” Petro said of the in-sync play of the team.
And it helped them face their first bit of adversity, a 10-0 loss to Midland in the penultimate game of the state tourney.
“We came up against their best pitcher in the morning and they 10-run ruled us,” Coach Reilley said of the shortened five-inning contest. “The kids regrouped and knew that if we just focus on what got us here and clear the decks of the morning, we could get to them. We beat them, 12-2, in the afternoon to take the title.”
The preparation leading to their longest road trip has included a lot of media attention, including appearances on WSAV and WJCL, where sportscaster Frank Sulkowski filmed them playing a scrimmage against the 10-and-under Bluffton All-Stars, who are also headed to Laurel as South Carolina state champions.
“It speaks to the talent and the dedication of the kids and the parents in the Lowcountry that we’re both going,” Reilley said of joining the Bluffton crew in Mississippi. “It’s an exciting time and I know we both have the talent to represent strong for South Carolina.”
One of the interesting sidenotes around this team is that the kids have helped bridge an off-the-field business rivalry. Reilley’s family runs the CRAB restaurant group, while team parent Alan Wolf is director of operations for the SERG group of eateries.
“Alan is amazing, the boys enjoy playing together so much and we’ve been friends for a while and when we’re together, it’s all baseball,” Reilley said of the adult twist around the team. “But our families definitely know the meaning of hard work.”
The team has been raising funds around the community to help cover expenses for what they hope will be a week-long run to the town’s third-ever national title – coach Larry Page led a group to the Dixie Youth Majors title in 1999 and Col. John Parker led the Minors All Stars to a World Series victory in 2001.
The boys have bagged groceries at Piggly Wiggly and hawked treats at Wayback Burgers to raise attention and donations, and the team parents have set up a GoFundMe page to help defray the costs. Anyone can donate online at gofund.me/573ee97f.
“We can’t thank this community enough,” the coach said. “It’s been a truly special summer and we’re hoping to cap it off by taking title No. 3 for Hilton Head.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.