Andy McRae is a third-generation Needville native, the son of a preacher and the grandson of a rice farmer. Other than the years he was away at Texas A&M, he has been one of the city’s three thousand or so residents for all of his 45 years, and it would be pretty much impossible to overstate his love for the place.
That’s one of a long list of reasons why Needville’s run to the United States semifinals in the Little League World Series has been so special for both its coach and his hometown, forty miles southwest of Houston in Fort Bend County. Until a few months ago, the opening of Needville’s first Sonic might have been the biggest story of the year.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of support we’re getting from this small community and just the pride everybody takes in that,” McRae told me Tuesday morning from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “And for me being from there, and these boys being from there, that’s huge. It’s just really cool. I know it’ll fade, but for now, everybody knows where Needville is, and that has never happened before.”
Needville Little League, as the tournament’s representative of the Southwest U.S. region, opened the double-elimination tournament with three straight victories and earned a berth in the United States Final Four against the Northwest team (from northeast Seattle) on Wednesday. Only two Texas teams have ever won the Little League World Series, both from Houston, in 1950 and 1966. A 2017 team from Lufkin was the last Texas club to win the U.S. championship.
Around Needville, they’re celebrating at bars and churches and in homes, where the mood at watch parties swings from celebratory to tense and back again. “My heart was pounding,” Mayor Chad Nesvadba told me. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happening?’ ”
He was describing the range of emotions he felt when Needville held a 3–1 lead over California heading into the sixth and final inning of Monday’s game. That’s when reliever Easton Ondruch hit the first two batters he faced to put the tying runs on base. “Get your mechanics; trust ’em,” McRae told him during a brief conference on the mound. “Let it go. Don’t hold back.” Ondruch did just that and got the final two outs to end the game.
During our interview, Nesvadba ticked off the list of watch parties being held throughout his city. There are free hot dogs and chicken strips at some places, pizza and nachos at others. “This has been amazing,” he said. “Our town is just buzzing right now. Every Facebook post is about these kids. People are texting and calling one another. Right now, we’re trying to plan a big welcome home party.”
His voice reflected the pride of an entire city. “We’re a small town,” he said. “When people get sick, we rally behind them. We have fundraisers when someone is fighting cancer. That’s who we are, and these kids, we know ’em; we are so excited for them.”
Needville’s biggest challenge so far might have been its Little League World Series opener, a 2–1 victory over Media, Pennsylvania, located just a few hours from the tournament’s home base, in Williamsport. “We had about sixteen thousand for that game,” McRae said. “That’s three, four, or five times the size of our hometown. I think at the end of the day, it’s been amazing to me how they’ve handled it. Leading up to that first game, they were nervous. You could see it. We talked about it. We didn’t try to hide it and say, ‘Oh, don’t be nervous.’ We said, ‘Look, the coaches are nervous. Everybody’s nervous. You’re human, you’re twelve years old, it’s okay to be nervous. Just figure out how to play with being nervous.’ ”
The coach had seen his team’s focus on display during four victories in the Waco qualifying tournament. That tournament was the first time Needville’s game were broadcast on ESPN, and McRae could sense nerves in the dugout. “Then when it was time to play, they just locked in,” he said. “I think that says so much about their makeup. I think they’re a tough group of kids, and their parents have done a good job raising them. They’re a talented group of kids, and they’ll fight through adversity. They’re also really good at baseball. They’ve had a little guidance from me, but it’s on them. There’s only so much you can say to a twelve-year-old. You just kind of try to give them the right guidance and steer the ship as best as you can.”
When McRae started naming the players who had carried Needville through the qualifying tournaments, DJ Jablonski, who pitched into the sixth inning and also homered in Monday’s win, was at the top of the list. “He’s five foot three and not one of our bigger kids,” McRae said. “But he’s left-handed and a little bulldog and a great hitter, too. He has a great mind for the game.”
McRae is especially proud of his son, Jagger, the third baseman who made SportsCenter’s top ten plays of the day for a diving stop last Wednesday. Shortstop Dayln Martin made Tuesday’s top ten for a diving catch he made in shallow left field the previous night. Ondruch hit a grand slam in the regional tournament. Another pitcher, Easton Benge, also catches. Colten Georgi belted a key hit against California on Monday.
“Really, the funny thing is, I can go through everybody,” McRae said. “The thing people are surprised by is how the bottom of the order has really carried our team, and it’s really cool to see because that doesn’t happen all the time.”
McRae saw this team begin to take shape years ago, when its core players were participating in Needville’s T-ball program. “You could just see they were better,” he said. “Way better.” Having seen Texas Little League teams from Pearland to Lubbock make it to Williamsport in recent years, McRae said he began to believe that if this group stayed together, it was capable of playing at that level.
“I don’t know if we saw them being a game away from the U.S. championship,” he said, “but we definitely saw something special. These guys have played together for a few years. They’ve traveled together; they go to the same school together. We’ve kind of had this vision of keeping them together, and everybody’s bought in.”
That familiarity, he said, has bred a roster full of players who have a deep trust and belief in one another. “You can see it on the field,” he said. “Our pitchers aren’t scared to throw the ball across the plate because they know the guy behind them is going to make a play. That trust is so big. These kids have traveled together, played together for so long that it’s twelve of their best friends. It’s such a comfort level at times that we’ve gotta reel ’em in and say, ‘Hey, let’s concentrate and play.’ ”
McRae, an insurance agent, has been involved in the city’s Little League program since his sixteen-year-old son, Drew, fell in love with baseball almost a decade ago. That interest rubbed off on Jagger. “I gravitated to baseball to help Drew out,” McRae said. “And I love to coach. It’s what I wanted to do when I got out of college. I just decided against it because insurance sounded so fun, I guess. And then Jagger fell in love with it. From the time he was little, I’d come home, and there’d be a bucket of baseballs waiting for me. My wife Madalene had been pitching to him all day before that. So it just naturally became part of the fabric of our family.”
McRae’s players have been on the road so much this summer that the coach set aside a chunk of family time during Tuesday’s off day. But he also knows that the memories they’re making this month will last a lifetime. “They’ve met kids from Cuba and Japan,” he said. “We room with the kids from Venezuela, and they’re trading arm sleeves for gloves and this and that. I have no idea what they’re saying to each other, but they’re making deals.”
McRae said playing in Williamsport wasn’t even a distant dream when he got involved in Little League baseball. In the beginning, he said, it was just about spending time with his sons. His kids may need years to grasp the magnitude of this experience. Andy McRae does not.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said. “Something you dream about since you’re a little kid. I’d watch Texas [Little League] teams back in the day and hope they were going to do really well. It’s just unbelievable now to be one of them.”
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