After six seasons of moving up the Little League ranks, the baseball careers of Anthony Catapano, 14, and his Franklin Square teammates were nearing a collective climax.
Catapano fired a fastball, coaxing a pop-up. When the ball disappeared into third baseman Julio Lazardo's glove, the team had punched its ticket to the tournament in Taylor, Mich. -- the older brother of the annual Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
"It was the greatest feeling of my life," Catapano said.
By 4:30 a.m. the following morning, Catapano and the team's 12 other members had returned home, washed uniforms, packed and piled into a bus for Philadelphia to catch their plane to Michigan.
Franklin Square emerged from four qualifying tournaments with a 15-1 record, a reputation for clutch hitting and a penchant for come-from-behind victories. The team faces Manhattan Beach, Calif., in its first game Sunday. Franklin Square overcame deficits in three of its four wins in its final tourney in New Jersey, including one in which the squad trailed by five runs in the last inning.
"We always say we want to come out of the gate on top, but it doesn't work out that way," said James O'Connell, 14, an outfielder whose father, Jimmy, is the coach. "We have to wait until the end to make him grow a few more gray hairs."
The team has solid pitching and defense, but it wins games with its deep lineup of hitters led by Catapano, who already has six homers in tournament play.
"It's not even fair," said James O'Connell. "I'd intentionally walk him."
The team is the first Junior League World Series qualifier from Long Island since a 2004 Massapequa squad. To get to Michigan, Franklin Square defeated opponents from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
To win in Michigan, the team must survive a round robin against champions from four other U.S. regions, then top the winner of an international pool that includes teams from Aruba, Mexico and Chinese Taipei.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how we stack up," coach Jimmy O'Connell said.
Some of their potential opponents are "huge, they're great hitters, and they can throw the ball 85 miles per hour," said centerfielder Matt Cosme, 13.
While the team's travel and accommodations are paid for by organizers, the players' families chartered a bus for the 11-hour drive to Taylor, a suburb of Detroit. Many will stay through the conclusion of the tournament at the end of next week.
"We are all floating on clouds," said Josephine Catapano, 49. "I still don't believe that this is real."