At 3 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002, the Bryan Packers pulled out ofthe West Point High School parking lot.
The team was without All-Area Player of the Year, starting first baseman Lance Martin and starting third baseman “Hot” Rod Williams.
Martin and Williams had accepted scholarships to play football and practice had begun. The pair would miss the trip to Kansas City, Mo.for the American Legion Mid-South Regional.
The bus made it to the windmill on Highway 50, headed toward the Birmingham Airport when a car pulled up behind, flashing its lights.
Coach Frank Portera saw the car and told the bus driver “Pull over.
There’s something wrong here.”
When Portera stepped outside, someone was walking toward the bus carrying clothes and a suit case.
It was Rod Williams.
“Rod,” Portera said. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Find me a place to play football when we get back, Coach,” Williams said. “But for now I’m going with y’all.”
Williams didn’t make his decision until 1 a.m.
“It was an overnight thing,” Williams said. “I chose to play baseball because I wanted to finish what I had started.
“I knew it was a once in a lifetime experience I was gonna miss out on and I didn’t want to miss out on it.”
Portera had mixed emotions.
“I felt good about (him going with the team),” Portera said. “But I had to be concerned about his future, too. I knew I could get him a place to play on the junior college level with baseball if that fell through. So I felt good about the fact that he wasn’t gonna miss college.”
Martin’s replacement at first base was Russell Bourland, a utility infielder and middle reliever.
“We were out two of our best players,” Bourland said. “We’re out Lance Martin and Rod Williams. Everybody knows I’m probably gonna take first base.
“We’re all happy to see (Rod). You can look at the numbers. He was on a tear right there at the end of the year. It took three or four of us stepping up to get the job done.”
Bourland had mixed emotions about his new found responsibility.
“I was happy to be on a field,” Bourland said. “Happy to have a chance to be playing in a game when it was close. If I was playing and (Martin) wasn’t, it was because we were up by a lot or down by a lot.
Lance Martin was All-Area Player of the Year, you don’t not play him. When I did get to play, it wasn’t like some players ‘Oh, I’m gonna show ‘em’. I could never do what Lance did on a day-in, day-out basis. For me, it was luck. It was a blessing. It ended up being the best two weeks of my life. It was because this guy had a decision to make and he went and played football instead of playing in the tournament.
“But there’s also this pressure of ‘Man, we’ve come this far.’ We beat a great Tupelo 49er’s team to get here and I don’t want this thing to come back to some psych out on my behalf and it could happen that way.”
Williams had left his wallet at home and the attacks of September 11 were still fresh in the minds of the TSA.
“We go boppin’ up to the counter, where we’re checkin’ in,” Portera said. “I got my boys, I got everything. When you’re coaching that age people, you’re not only the coach, you’re the secretary, the travel agent, the food manager, the hotel person. You are everything. You got to take care of the whole thing. I look around and Rod is (looking for his wallet). He says ‘I left my wallet in the car!’
“There’s no goin’ back. We have to board the plane at seven o’clock. There is no way to get it there.”
Portera asked for the supervisor, who took pity on the coach and said
“I’ll tell you what-bring him on in here and you come in here with him.”
The supervisor took the pair into a room.
“They did a strip search on the two of us, as well as our luggage,” Portera said. “Everything. I was ready to scream. And it happened to us everywhere we flew to. We had to change flights in St. Louis and we got searched a second time. They did the same thing everywhere we
went. Four times we got searched.”
In the first game, the Packers faced the host team, Fike.
The host team was awarded a spot in the regional tournament without having to win their way into the regional. Fike was the only team not to win a state tournament.
Pitcher Josh Johnson was throwing a no-hitter until Fike’s Todd Gilstrap hit a single in the fifth.
Johnson finished the game with a dozen strikeouts and a shutout on three hits.
“I felt comfortable the whole night,” Johnson said at the time. “I felt I could do well if I kept hitting my spots. Earlier in the game, I could tell they were behind my fastball.”
Bourland hit an RBI double in the fourth, and scored on a single by Dustin Snider.
The Packers followed with five runs in the fifth and three in the seventh before the game was run-ruled in 10-0 Packers victory.
In the second game, the Packers dropped a 12-6 decision to Gonzales, La. “We made numerous mistakes that cost us,” Portera said at the time. “We hit the ball well, but made too many base-running errors.
“I thought we had the stronger ballclub. We just left too many men on base and had a lapse on defense.”
The Bryan Packers committed seven errors and walked five batters.
“We made a ton of errors against Louisiana,” Brandon McGarity said. “We pretty much beat ourselves.”
In the next game against Jonesboro (Ark.), the Packers opened up with an eight run first and finished the game with 23 runs on 25-for-49 hitting as a team, including 13 extra base hits. Joby Garner, David Nanney and Johnson had four hits apiece, while Bourland and Corey Carter had three apiece.
The Packers led 15-5 after four, but gave up eight runs in the fifth and three in the sixth to pull to tie the game at 16.
Carter blasted a two-run homerun in a five run seventh inning. Nanney added another two run homer in the eighth.
In a 5-3 victory over League City, Texas, the Packers trailed 3-1 heading into the seventh, before picking up a pair of runs in each of the seventh and eighth innings.
Carter had three hits for the West Point squad.
Jeff Schafer pitched a complete game for the Packers, giving up three runs on eight hits and no walks, while striking out four.
Because of the loss, the Packers had to depend on the host team, Fike to defeat Number 1-seeded Gonzales (La.). If Louisiana won, they would go to the American Legion World Series. If Fike won, the Bryan Packers would play Omaha (Neb.).
The game, which was set for eight o’clock, would decide the Packers' fate.
“Louisiana was probably the top team in the United States at the time,” Portera said. “They had twelve signees going to college on that team.”
The director of the Mid-South Regional took Portera aside.
“The best thing we can do is get y’all a flight out of here at seven o’clock in the morning, out of Kansas City,” he said. “Y’all are gonna have to be at the airport at four or five o’clock. Just go back to the hotel and get some rest. We’ll call you in the morning if you need to get up, and I’ll tell you right now, with Fike playing Louisiana, y’all are gonna need to get up. We’ll call you between two and three o’clock.”
The Packers had finished as runner-up in the regional tournament in 1997 and 1999. By all appearances, they wouldn’t do that well in 2002.
Portera told his players it didn’t look good.
He went back to the hotel to go to bed and looked out the window.
There was lightening in the distance.
It was eight o’clock.
At 5:30 the next morning, Assistant Coach Tyler Bratton’s phone rang.
It was Coach Portera.
“Hey Buddy,” he said. “Get the boys up. We’ve got the early game.”
“What?” Bratton said.
“We didn’t expect it, but that’s why you play the game. Get the boys up.”
Bratton went around to the rooms, knocking on the doors.
“I was telling them to get up,” Bratton said. “We were in.
“We were like a cat that had nine lives. They all thought I was joking, but I would tell them that if I was joking, we’d be at the airport by now. We just took a very business-like approach to it, then. We just thought we were gonna win this thing.”
With the lightening the night before came rain, and lots of it.
American Legion tournaments are played on a strict schedule, all tournaments must be finished within a certain time frame.
Fike’s coach sensed it would be a long night. He sent his players home and promised to call them about an hour before game time. The team from Gonzales stayed to help clean and prep the field.
By the time the first pitch was thrown at 2 a.m., a rested and fresh Fike team was playing a Gonzales team who had spent half the night working on a wet field.
Fike won 3-2.
Josh Johnson was rested, too. The Caledonia hurler threw a complete game against Omaha, giving up one run on four hits and one walk while striking out seven.
Oamaha struck first, plating their lone run in the fifth.
The Packers scored first in the seventh, when Carter doubled to send catcher Justin Best home.
“I was a little bit concerned because Nebraska has the best hitting American Legion team I’ve ever seen,” Portera said after the game.
“They just overwhelmed Texas 13-1 in seven innings. I wasn’t sure about throwing a fastball pitcher (like Johnson) against them, but he was so good for us and hit his spots. He just blew it by them.”
After the regional victory, the Packers barely celebrated.
“They didn’t dog pile or anything like that,” Bratton said. “We were very professional about it. We were happy, but we weren’t satisfied.”
The next day, the team got a tour of the Kansas City Royals’ stadium.
As the bus pulled out, two men stopped the bus.
“Coach,” one of the men said. “I just want to tell you something. We want to tell you we appreciate you coming and being a part of this and congratulate you.
“But more than anything, the character of your players- nobody else is even comparable to.”
The man turned to the players and said “You people are gentlemen and you are a class act and, you’ve conducted yourselves like gentlemen. You are a class act and I just wanted to tell you that.”
Then the bus headed to the airport.
The Bryan Packers were headed to the World Series.