A big battle for Little League champs

Manager Alex Rice gathers the Taney Dragons after practice. The racially diverse Pennsylvania Little League championship squad also includes Mo'ne Davis, the only girl playing on any of the state's eight top teams.
Manager Alex Rice gathers the Taney Dragons after practice. The racially diverse Pennsylvania Little League championship squad also includes Mo'ne Davis, the only girl playing on any of the state's eight top teams. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 31, 2014

Saturday proved brutal for the Taney Dragons, a 7-2 flat tire of a contest.

The Dragons had not ceded a single game in the fiercely competitive district and sectional rounds, and now this loss. They were one win away from besting more than 300 teams and being crowned state champs.

Amazing Taney, players from across the city and in only its second season of Little League, was not whole.

Two boys were in New Hampshire on a long-standing camp scholarship. Parents, unified in the moment, agreed: This is ridiculous. Let's do this as a team.

A trio of fathers drove through the night to retrieve Jahli Hendricks and Scott Bandura, seven hours up, seven hours back, to return four hours before the final game to get the series done. Said soft-spoken Taney manager Alex Rice: "If Jahli and Scott hadn't come back, I'm not sure what their state of mind might have been." You could call Jahli and Scott stars and essential to Taney's glory, but all dozen Dragons, ages 12 and 13, are stars and essential to this moment.

Then came Sunday. Glorious, gorgeous Sunday, a jewel.

"Tough and gritty, those kids from the city!"

Taney stumbled, trailing, 4-0, quickly against Collier Township, just southwest of Pittsburgh, its pitcher a beast on the mound. Said outfielder Eli Simon: "It felt like we were down 20-0."

Unflappable pitcher Mo'ne Davis, the sole girl playing on the state's eight top teams, braids sweeping her waist, grew calmer and tougher with the morning. As her mother said: "Nothing gets to Mo'ne. Nothing ever does."

Parents were another matter. Several covered their eyes when their children came to bat.

"C'mon, Mo Mo!"

Taney ignited in the fourth inning, lit by Jared Sprague-Lott's two-run homer. Monster hitter Zion Spearman closed the deal with a three-run bomb in the bottom of the fifth for Taney to triumph, 6-4.

Taney's going to the Regionals! We're going to Bristol!

On Palmer Park field in Skippack Township, the players piled onto one another like puppies. Jahli said, "I kind of cried." The parents? A river's worth. Those tough and gritty kids from the city were crowned all-stars. Younger kids from Lower Perkiomen clamored to get their autographs. Taney hasn't had much practice signing autographs.

Pennsylvania, meet your 2014 Little League champions, a team like none other in the state tournament.

Taney mirrors much of the city. African American, white, four of mixed race, including a son of a Vietnamese immigrant, tall (6-foot-1), not so tall (a breath over five feet), from all over, top students at eight different schools, public, charter, parochial, and private, most on generous scholarships. Plus the singular Mo'ne.

Rice told Mayor Nutter when he phoned postgame from France: "I can't wait for you to meet our boys - and girl."

Baseball isn't even the 13-year-old girl's top sport. It's basketball. A terror on the court, Mo'ne once put up 37 points in a game.

But being different isn't easy. There have been ugly racial taunts online since Taney made the district playoffs.

After Sunday's triumph, posts on the players' Instagram accounts, several apparently from members and friends of the losing team, were brutal. Comments about players being from New Jersey or the Dominican Republic - nonsense, Taney is entirely Philadelphian - and the bitter hashtag #taneycheats.

And this: "They're just putting them to Bristol cuz 3/4 there team is black and a girl is on their team so no one cared about a regular team."

Regular team.

As if any team that wins a championship could be regular?

Taney players tried to put it behind them, but the parents were irate. "We're providing these kids with the same opportunities as their suburban counterparts," said Steve Bandura, Scott's father and founder of the multisport Anderson Monarchs, where many Dragons first played. His mission is to get more African American players involved in the game. "We have the greatest pool of untapped talent in our inner cities."

Rice said, "Our bigger goal than winning was to promote baseball and to show how the kids from the city can break stereotypes and excel."

The Dragons dream of going to Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series. Many kids have played on multiple teams since age 6. And Taney is celebrating its 20th year as a city league, but took out a charter to Little League only last season, which ended more as a shrug than a shout.

Lacking a regular field, the team might more accurately be called the All-over Dragons. Practice venues change almost daily: Center City, University City, farther west, and, during the winter, a hangar out by the airport. Being a Taney parent is a second full-time job of driving, more driving, and fund-raising.

On Thursday, the dozen Dragons and their families head to the Mid-Atlantic regionals in Connecticut for 10 days. The cost for travel, meals, and board (players lodge free) is considerable, about $20,000, and Taney can't afford all that. To donate, http://taney12ubaseball.weebly.com/.

After Sunday's triumph, the Dragons celebrated with lunch at a nearby pub and by watching 10-year-old champions compete. By Monday, the players were back practicing at Anderson rec center, at 17th and Fitzwater, where the sweet thwack of their bats could be heard well into the dark of evening.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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