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Making the Cut

Little league team uses trust, enthusiasm to sweep state tourney.

Joey Marino had to make a choice: his team or his hair. “I love my hair,” said Joey. But it’s gone, most of it.

The only reminder of the hair that used to flow from the back of Joey’s baseball cap is a ridge running down the center of his head. Like the rest of Woodlawn Junior League’s All-Stars, Joey is rocking a Mohawk.

Four players began the trend before the district tournament. “Nobody [else] was really going to get one,” said Mike Murdock, one of the original four. “They all said, ‘I’ll get one if Joey gets one,’ because they knew Joey wouldn’t.’”

But after the team swept the district tournament, that vow changed from an excuse to an obstacle. The players were so eager to get the haircuts at their post-tournament party they chased Joey down and gang-tackled him. Coach Robert Troiano intervened before any unconsented clipping could take place, but by then Joey was caught up in the spirit and went to the barber’s chair willingly.

The enthusiasm from the district victory was infectious. About 50 people had risen before dawn to drive from Woodlawn to Alleghany County for the championship game at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. Woodlawn was playing the Alleghany Highlands, but Gary Murdock, whose son Mike is on the team, estimated Woodlawn’s cheering section outnumbered the home team’s.

At the party, it was not just the 13 players and three coaches who let a team mom carve Mohawks into their hair. Mike Murdock ticked off an extensive list of younger brothers and “some kid who’s not even on the team who’s older sister comes to all the games” who all went eagerly under the clippers.

MORE THAN many other team sports, baseball is often decided by individual performances, the contests between one pitcher and one batter. But it is no coincidence that Woodlawn’s greatest strength is in the aspect of the game most heavily reliant on teamwork and communication.

“We’re a really good defensive team,” Colin Amerau explained. This sentiment was repeated unanimously by every player and coach when asked about the team’s best quality.

Many of Woodlawn’s players, all of whom are 13 or 14, have been playing together since they were 9.

“We’re all a team,” said Andrew Sable. “We’ve been together so long we’re just friends.”

“We all hang out when we’re not playing baseball,” said Jimmy Woehrle.

The team started practicing together in the middle of June, and John Stephens credited the many days of sweaty summer practices for drawing the team together.

“We built up a lot of team chemistry over the summer, working through these hot days,” he said. “Tempers would flare, you’d say things. Finally you’d think about it and you’d work it out. You’d apologize and you’d think about how this team is like a big family. You’d never say anything mean or disrespectful to a mother or a father or a sister or a brother.” After drawing a skeptical look, John paused for a moment: “Maybe a sister or a brother,” he acknowledged.

“We all had each other’s backs on everything,” said Zach Quigley. In baseball, this is not just a figure of speech. Players on great defensive teams try to back-up every throw, to make sure no ball skips far past its target.

“We’d know where everybody was in the situation,” Mike explained, “kinda like muscle memory. Knowing everybody should always have a back-up, we learned to rely on each other.”

When asked how he would define the team, John Jarding replied without hesitation, “as a family.”

“We call the whole team to go to the pool, to each other’s houses, to the movies,” he said. “If we have each other’s backs off the field, we’re going to have each other’s backs on the field – fielding the ball if the pitcher is struggling, making plays for him.”

COACH ROBERT TROIANO and his assistants Luke Sable and Rob Woerhle, who coach Woodlawn’s three Little League teams from which the all-stars are drawn, take advantage of this camaraderie by beginning each practice with defensive sessions and by keeping the players inspired.

“When these kids were 9 years old we saw we had a gifted team,” said Robert Troiano. “A lot of it’s natural talent.”

“Coach pumps us up sometimes and just makes us want to play,” said Graham Henry.

“Everyone was just fired up to play [at the state tournament], said Mike Murdock. “If you ask someone who was watching the games, every inning we were yelling.” Before the team ran onto the field each inning, they would gather for a cheer of “Defense!” Before going to bat, Troaino would bring them together to chant “Big hits!”

“Everyone took it on themselves to get everybody fired up,” said Mike. “If they started to get down on themselves we’d pick them up.” He gave particular credit to the players who didn’t start but made sure their presence was felt from the bench.

THE WOODLAWN JUNIOR ALL-STARS swept all five games of the state championship, outscoring their opponents 116 to 28. For the trip to represent their state at the Southern Regional Tournament in Cartersville, Ga., they have raised $11,000. Tony Troiano, the son of Robert Troiano, estimated the team spent about 12 hours washing cars and asking for donations at Safeway. Pontiac GMC and City Finance each donated $3,000 for the trip.

The team will play South Carolina on Saturday, Alabama on Sunday, and North Carolina Monday. If they win the championship game on Wednesday, they will fly immediately to the Junior League World Series in Taylor, Mich., which will host six American teams as well as teams from Indonesia, Germany, Venezuela and Mexico.

All of Woodlawn’s players were pulled from one zip code, 22309, and most will be attending Mount Vernon High School.

“It’s very hard to find kids of this caliber that play this well together in the same zip code,” said Robert Troiano. “It’s a small area that we pull these kids from.”

“This is Little League ball at its best right here,” said coach Luke Sable.