SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - Before each game, the Taney Little League team gathers for a short prayer that is led by the team's "preacher," power hitter Zion Spearman.
Manager Alex Rice said it is a "very cute, beautiful little prayer." And so far it is working.
"I say sometimes, 'Bless our hands, bats, gloves, so we can work hard and overcome this obstacle,' " said Spearman, 12, after the team practiced for Wednesday night's third-round game against Mountain Ridge Little League from Las Vegas.
Spearman said the prayer allows his team - and himself - to stay positive. Spearman has come through twice in Taney's Little League World Series run with key hits when the team trailed.
He hit a three-run homer in the regional semifinal and crushed a game-tying triple with two outs in Sunday's second-round win. Spearman has two hits in both games at the Little League World Series and is hitting .409 in his last eight games.
But baseball was not always easy for Spearman. His mother, Trazana Spearman, brought her son to try out for Rice's team when Spearman was 10.
"I was bad," he said.
Rice said he threw Spearman 30 pitches and he swung and missed at 28 of them. The other two were fouled off.
"But those two, he hit off of the Markward Playground building, which is well over 200 feet," Rice said. "This was a 10-year-old, so I was like, we can work with that."
Spearman, who lives in North Philadelphia and attends World Communications Charter School, said he improved his game by working on his mechanics and batting. "Nobody works harder than Zion," Rice said. The manager said he often takes his son Alex and Taney teammate Jared Sprague-Lott to city batting cages to get in extra hitting. And almost every time, Rice said, there is Spearman.
"And he's already been there for an hour, hour and a half," Rice said. "He deserves all the success that he gets."
Wednesday's game will be Taney's toughest test of the tournament. Las Vegas has won both of its games by the 10-run mercy rule. The winner advances to Saturday's U.S championship. The loser moves to an elimination game.
The tournament's best offense will meet the tournament's best pitcher, Taney's Mo'ne Davis. Spearman said his team wants to face good competition "and see who the better team is."
"To me the West team is really good," Spearman said. "But if we get our bats clicking, it should be a good matchup and hopefully we come out on top."
Rice said Spearman is gifted with "all sorts of natural ability." He said he's not just strong but incredibly fast. Spearman's body is built like a running back, but he does not play football. Rice said he probably will start playing soon.
"He's like a mini Bo Jackson," Rice said. "Picture another 12-year-old tackling him. Good luck, right?"