EAST MANATEE -- There are no easy outs in the Manatee Cal Ripken 12-Under All-Stars lineup.
Just ask Palm Beach Gardens, Manatee's foe in the state tournament opener two weeks ago in Sanford.
Manatee's ninth-place hitter in that game, Ian McLain, ripped a pair of home runs, including a three-run walk-off shot in the eighth inning to close out an 11-8 victory.
The win propelled Manatee, based in Heritage Harbour, toward its first state championship and a berth in Thursday's Southeast Regional in Palm Beach Gardens.
Manatee's depth and teamwork have carried it one step away from the Cal Ripken World Series.
"We've had this team together for three years," head coach Scott Kolbe said. "They know each other pretty well. They play hard together."
Manatee's 12U and 9U teams both qualified for the regional tournaments. The 9U team finished runner-up in the state tournament at Altamonte Springs and is headed for a tournament in Franklin, Tenn.
The Manatee 12U team (14-2), made up mostly of students at Braden River and Haile middle schools, earned 11-8, 14-4 and 12-2 victories to get to the state championship series before falling 5-0 to Winter Park. That forced a winner-take-all rematch.
Top pitcher Caleb Whitson returned from a broken wrist suffered in May to pitch a complete game in a 6-4 Manatee victory. The team's top hitters are Collin Goda and Hunter Bogumil.
Most of the players remembered losing in the state final last season. That made this year's championship that much sweeter.
"They were really excited," Kolbe said. "They kind of felt like we had unfinished business."
Manatee opens the double-elimination regional tournament against Buckhead, the Georgia state champion, at 10 a.m. Thursday. The teams were scheduled to be introduced before Wednesday night's game between the Single-A Palm Beach Cardinals and Tampa Yankees.