Wineka column: Our gritty girls were in league of their own

Published 12:05 am Friday, August 21, 2015

SALISBURY — You might have noticed it. We all seemed to have an extra skip in our steps Thursday. It was a hangover borne of pride. We were walking straighter, with our chests pushed out. We gave waitresses an extra dollar on their tip and told our grandchildren to go ahead and grab a second Cheerwine out of the refrigerator.

The hot, humid day didn’t bother us. And if you were waiting in a long line at the pharmacy, you didn’t care. It just gave you time to seek out someone new and talk about it all again — how those tough, gritty girls from Rowan County took on the rest of the world and beat it.

The Rowan County Little League softball team of 13 young women, fresh off its World Series championship win Wednesday night in Oregon, had a long travel day with their families and coaches Thursday. It was a different kind of hangover for them. They all surely were exhausted from tension-packed play and exuberant celebration. And just as surely, it was a happy group, knowing what it had accomplished.

The Rowan girls — 11, 12 and 13 years old — beat teams from Canada, the Philippines, Washington state, Texas and, in the 4-2 final win, Rhode Island.

They played two nights on national television, and each evening they brought considerable attention to “Sows-berry,” which ESPN researchers seemed to think was closer to Raleigh than Charlotte.

They threw out runners, grabbed line drives, displayed timely hitting and relied on a great pitcher and catcher from neighboring Iredell County — girls who had to play for Rowan because there wasn’t a Little League softball team for them in Mooresville.

Monday, the Rowan team found itself, through no fault of its own, embroiled in one of those national Little League controversies when adults step in and mess things up for the kids. It was obvious the Washington team — the West Region’s representative — had purposely tried to lose its game against Rowan so Washington might have an easier route to the final.

The Washington coaches rested four of their best starters and instructed all of their remaining players to bunt the entire game, as Rowan won with ease, 8-0.  It was a lesson in game-fixing and taking a dive, and Little League officials called foul, saying Washington failed to play with the effort and spirit appropriate to Little League.

By not trying to win, the West team had compromised the game’s integrity, and Little League officials came up with a way to make it pay — and ultimately go home.

Our girls just kept their heads down and played two great games to win the whole thing.

They also did us proud — and the national audience watching Wednesday night found out about it, too — when their families bought backpacks, plus team and individual photos for each of the players from Uganda, the first African team to play in this Little League World Series.

Almost as soon as the final out was recorded past 11 p.m. Wednesday, Eastern Standard Time, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory was tweeting an invitation for the girls to visit him at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.

Back in Rowan County, Thursday’s travel day gave us more time to prance like peacocks and make plans. A tour bus company arranged to meet the players at the Charlotte airport. The sheriff  escorted the bus from the county line to Salisbury. Residents were encouraged to stand along the downtown route and welcome the team home, and they also waited for the bus to arrive at the West End Plaza.

The newspaper ran a big headline declaring the team “World Champs!” Local television stations aired interviews and showed all the highlights. City and council officials busily put together the route for a Saturday morning parade, and Salisbury businesses spread the word that the players would be treated like royalty.

Yes, people are going crazy, but we’re small enough to sort of make it endearing. For example, Greg Culp of Salisbury Scuba is offering the girls free lessons and scuba gear at highly discounted prices.

There’s talk that the welcoming signs to Rowan County and/or Salisbury should be changed to include the notation we are now home to the 2015 Little League Softball World Series Champions.

Pregnant women are giving new consideration to names such as Kary, Ellen, Kali, Allison and Caitlin. And someone even suggested the girls run for political office, but there’s an age problem.

For a moment, our Little League world champions have made us all feel like winners, and that’s a good thing. Better yet, we watched these girls for two glorious nights and saw them dance, hug, fist-bump, scream, laugh and cry tears of joy. We heard about their compassion for others and witnessed their resolve amid controversy.

Above all, we realized these girls are pretty good athletes. My favorite image from Wednesday night’s watch party at East Coast Wings was one in which J. D. Basinger, Luke Goodin and T.J. Jones — boys who play Little League baseball in Rowan — are watching the game so intently.

They knew. These girls could play.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or