Who could have imagined it? A trip to the 2013 Little League World Series for Eastlake Little League’s own 12-under all-star team.
The youth baseball squad’s magical journey this summer to the hallowed grounds of Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pa., not only generated an enormous sense of pride for the league but for the entire surrounding community as well.
Wonderful. Fabulous. Extraordinary.
There are few words to adequately describe the life-altering experience.
How about just fun?
Because that’s exactly what motivated and inspired team members to reach their lofty goals during the team’s seemingly never-ending 24-game odyssey.
They remained, as manager Rick Tibbett put it, “loose.”
“They’re all friends and have known each other for years,” Tibbett explained. “When they’re not playing baseball, they’re hanging out at each other’s houses.”
The team’s core group has played together for the past three years at various age levels, which fostered an unmatched sense of camaraderie.
Eastlake Little League President Ray Diaz called it “a phenomenal team chemistry.”
Ten of the team’s 12 players were on the Eastlake 11-under all-star team that captured last year’s District 42 championship banner and fell just short of winning the California Section 7 title.
With a year of maturity under their belts — stronger and faster and with a deeper team bond — perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise that the team did so well this year.
“I hoped we would work together as a team and get farther than we did last year,” offered pitcher/outfielder Jake Espinoza. “We never let each other down. It’s more fun when you win as a team.”
“We’re all friends,” pitcher/infielder Nick Mora said. “We always have fun practices. To be a part of that is a good feeling.”
Pitcher/outfielder Charly Peterson, a newcomer to the core group, said he immediately felt the feel-good vibe.
“It’s been really fun because everyone is close,” Peterson said. “That makes you want to give the team all you’ve got — you give it 110 percent because you know everyone else is doing the same.”
“It’s awesome — chasing the dream to Williamsport,” pitcher Grant Holman summed up.
Tibbett said it was just “fun to sit back and watch them produce each game.”
Eastlake began its trek with a 16-game winning streak that included championship titles earned at the district, section, sub-division, division and regional levels.
The team qualified for the Little League World Series after defeating Northern California state champion Belmont-Redwood Shores, 9-0, in the West Region championship game played Aug. 10 in San Bernardino.
The win by the Southern California state champions made amends for a 3-2 loss to the Bay Area team in preliminary pool play.
“Our slogan has been ‘Find a Way’,” Tibbett said. “That win was big … We took care of business.”
Diaz called the West Region championship game victory “a crazy night.”
“I was sitting on pins and needles the whole game,” he said. “It was pretty unbelievable. Everyone was ecstatic.”
As for making a statement at the LLWS, six-foot-two pitcher Grant Holman fired a no-hitter, striking out 13 batters, in Eastlake’s opening game — a 3-0 victory against Great Lakes region champion Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores.
It was an amazing start to the 12-day, 16-team double-elimination tournament for the high achieving Eastlake team, which continued its momentum with a 15-3 win over Mid-Atlantic region champion Newark (Del.) in its second game and a 6-3 win over New England champion Westport (Conn.) in its third game to reach the U.S. championship final.
Holman capped the run-rule win over Newark with a walk-off grand slam home run and belted a game-winning three-run homer against Westport.
After the team clinched a berth in the LLWS, Diaz said the league’s top priority turned to fund-raising efforts to offset travel and lodging costs for family members who attended the games in Williamsport.
Among those in the sizable Chula Vista caravan were Kim Holman (wife of coach Doug Holman and son Grant) and daughter Emily.
They were present to witness Grant’s history-making no-hitter.
“It’s such a dream come true,” Kim Holman explained. “Every Little Leaguer has set his dreams on this, so I’m proud to see what they’ve accomplished. I get choked up every time I think about them — it’s a lifetime memory.”
Kim attended all of the team’s games, whether they were local, elsewhere in San Diego County or points north or east.
Like many of the parents of players on the team, she remains awed by the team’s accomplishments. To be honest, who wouldn’t be?
Approximately 7,000 teams started on the road to Williamsport but only 16 teams — including just eight in the United States — completed the journey.
“That’s such an accomplishment,” Kim Holman said proudly. “Some of these kids have been chasing this dream since they were 10, and some even from when they were 8. There’s something special about this group. They’re just so coachable. You give them instruction and they go out and apply it. There’s no drama at all. They’re all friends.
“It’s been a fun ride for all of the parents.”
They found a way — all the way.