The Tillsonburg Lions took 'the long road' to win the OBA C Peewee Baseball Championship in Orillia on Labour Day long weekend.
"The kids played some great baseball," said peewee Lions coach Trevor Lamb. "Fantastic."
The Lions played a total of seven games over three days at the double-knockout tournament en route to the 2016 title, starting with a 13-4 win over Amherstburg Friday night. Belle River handed Tillsonburg a 12-6 loss Saturday morning.
"I think we gave up six runs in the first inning," said coach Lamb, recalling the Belle River game, "and just could not catch back up. It wasn't one of our best starts and we just couldn't get back in the game after that."
That meant Tillsonburg had to continue winning to remain in the tournament, and they defeated Uxbridge 23-5 Saturday afternoon.
"Our bats came alive and Uxbridge didn't have a lot of pitching. It was a good response after the Belle River game."
The Lions immediately followed with their third game of the day against Valley East Saturday night, a thrilling 9-8 win.
"The boys were getting a little bit tired, but they battled," said Lamb. "It came down to the last inning."
Tied in the seventh inning, Tillsonburg - the home team with last at-bat - loaded the bases with one out.
"We had a walk-off squeeze bunt that won the game. The batter (Eric Turrill) laid down a bunt and the runner at third (Travis Lamb) ran home at the same time - the runner touched home plate and the game was over. The boys were pretty excited about that."
Four teams were still alive Sunday morning - Tillsonburg, Amherstburg, Pelham and Belle River. The Lions met Pelham in the semifinals and trailed early.
"It was 2-0 in the first, 3-1 after two, then they went ahead 6-2. We just kept chipping away - it was 6-3, then 6-4 going into the seventh inning. And then we scored four runs in the top of the seventh to go ahead 8-6 and we got the three outs in the bottom of the seventh."
Belle River was still undefeated advancing to the finals, so Tillsonburg had to win two more games.
The Lions did not trail in their first Sunday match, winning 7-2. But Belle River replied by leading 3-1 after one inning, and 4-2 after two, and 5-2 after the fourth.
With their season on the line, Tillsonburg trailed 5-4 going into the sixth and scored two runs to go ahead 6-5. Belle River tied it up in the bottom half, so it was 6-6 going into the final inning.
"We scored seven runs in the top of the seventh," said coach Lamb. "I'm not sure why, but we always wait until the last inning to score a bunch of runs," he added with a laugh. "It's very stressful for the coaches... and very exciting for the fans and kids."
Belle River had one last at-bat, and a runner on first, but Tillsonburg put the next three batters down in order - two strikeouts and a ground out to shortstop Cameron Wall - to win the title.
A week earlier Tillsonburg had played its London league championship tournament with two walk-off games, after trailing by three, and another when they came from behind in the late innings.
"They always seemed to battle their hardest at the end, especially when they were down," said Lamb. "They laid their hearts out on the line and just kept battling. They just didn't want to lose. They were always positive that we could come back and beat any team, it didn't matter what the score was."
The Lions' game plan stressed patience at the plate. They didn't want to be overly aggressive, said Lamb, and the majority of the time it was just putting the ball in play and forcing the other team to make mistakes.
"It seemed they knew they were in a good spot whether they were winning or losing. If they were losing, they dug a little bit deeper to pull it out."
Not only did the Lions dig deeper in Sunday's final, Belle River seemed to run out of pitching.
"They had a couple fantastic pitchers that they had to use earlier. One they used in the first game against us, and the other only had a limited number of pitches left. I think he pitched a couple innings, and then after that it was pitchers who were no different from pitchers we had seen all year. The kids stayed patient, stuck to the game plan, and were able to get some base hits when we needed."
The Lions had finished fourth overall in the London area regular season, and reached the semifinals in the playoff tournament, losing to Wyoming.
"The way we had played all year, playing the higher classification teams in London, that set us up and prepared us for the teams in our ('C') classification. It's good that we played that competition throughout the year - we knew what we were going to have to play like to win OBAs."
Another highlight for the Tillsonburg Lions this summer was winning a tournament in Mitchell in July, defeating Kingsville in the semis and St. Marys in the final.
"It was a good year," Lamb summed up, noting half of the team will be returning as peewees next year.
"It sets us up well for next year too."