Eastlake Little League’s 12-under all-star tournament team is boldly going where no other team from the east side Chula Vista league has ever gone before: to the West Region championships in San Bernardino.
Eastlake earned the elite honor by claiming the Division III Southern California state championship title over the weekend by virtue of a two-game sweep — 6-3 and 5-0 — of Sub-Division III North champion Sherman Oaks.
Eastlake becomes only the third team in the history of Chula Vista’s District 42 Little League to advance as far as the western regional level — one step before the hallowed Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
The most recent team to accomplish that feat was, of course, Park View’s fabled 2009 World Series champion Blue Bombers. Prior to that, South Bay Little League advanced to the western regional championship game in 1982, dropping a 3-1 decision to Kirkland, Wash., in the title game. South Bay finished 3-1 at the tournament while outscoring opponents 45-6.
Eastlake, which stands 13-0 in post-season play, will face Hawaii on Friday, Aug. 2, in its opening game at the west regional. Game time is 8 p.m. on ESPN 3.
“We are now off to the western regionals,” Eastlake manager Rick Tibbett offered in an understatement mixed with pride.
Players, coaches and parents might have to be pinching themselves at this point. But the youngsters’ journey is very real.
Eastlake — reigning District 42, Section 7 and Sub-Division III South champions — captured Saturday’s opener in the best-of-three Division III finals against Section 2 champion Sherman Oaks on the strength of home runs by Giancarlo Cortez and Micah Wiggs. Cortez pitched the final four innings in relief to finish the game on the mound.
Nick Mora started the second game on Sunday, hurling five innings of shutout ball before being relieved by Rennard Williams, who pitched one scoreless inning. Wiggs and Mora each blasted two-run homers while Cortez cracked a solo home run.
What’s next? It will be exciting to find out.
The west region format includes six teams: Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Northern California, Southern California and Utah.
Teams will play four games in a modified round-robin, with the top four teams based on win-loss record advancing to semifinal contests on Aug. 9. The championship game is Aug. 10 and will be telecast on ESPN.
The winner advances to the Little League World Series.
Tibbett said the secret to success at this stage of the game is “clicking and luck.” The team’s strength remains what the manager refers to as its “togetherness” and team members readily agree.
The boys keep winning because they simply enjoy playing together.
“Everybody’s clicking right now — the hitting, the pitching, we’re playing together,” Tibbett said. “I don’t think we made more than a couple of errors in our first 11 games.”
It’s been a total team effort in getting this far — winning four post-season championship banners. If that sounds like a broken record with this bunch, that’s OK with them.
Because it’s true.
As a unit, they have found strength in numbers.
The team had one last Friday practice before heading up to play Sherman Oaks in the Division III championship series at Long Beach Little League.
According to coach Doug Holman, it was the same ritual the team had done every Friday before starting a tournament the following day.
“We go over every possible scenario that might actually happen in a game,” Holman explained. “We run through the same drills we’ve worked on since the first day we could practice on June 15.”
Joining Tibbett and Holman on the coaching staff is Eddie Espinoza. Victor Silverio, a former Major Leaguer with the Angels, serves as a guest instructor.
Of the 12 boys on the team, 10 have hit at least one home run so far in all-star tournament play this summer. Of those 12, nine attend Eastlake Middle School and eight have played travel ball with the Chula Vista Green Sox.
Besides a sense of togetherness on the field, the team also professes a great deal of experience.
It’s added up to a winning team — one based on a winning chemistry between teammates.
That attribute is obvious to anyone who has witnessed one of those celebrated Friday practices.
The core group has played together for the past three years. Last year’s team won the District 42 title but fell just short of winning the Section 7 championship.
“I hoped we would work together as a team and get farther,” Jake Espinoza offered. “We never let each other down. We all have each other’s backs. It’s more fun when we win as a team.”
“We all know each other — we’re all friends,” said Nick Mora, who, like many on the team, got his first taste of post-season play on Eastlake’s Tournament of Champions team at the 7/8 level.
“We all have experience from previous teams. We always have fun practices.”
Newcomer Charly Peterson, an eighth grader at Rancho Del Rey Middle School, said he felt the team’s vibe and was immediately welcomed aboard.
“It’s been really fun because everyone is close,” he said. “That makes me want to give the team all I’ve got. I want to give 110 percent because everyone else is doing the same.”
The team’s trademark thus far has been its penchant for hitting home runs — many of them of the prodigious variety that have crumbled opponents into the dust.
But personal glory isn’t the reward: It’s all for the team.
“It’s exciting,” Espinoza said, adding, “I get to run around the bases knowing that I’ve given my team another run.”
At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Grant Holman is the biggest kid on the diamond. He started to mature into his own last year and is squarely an intimidating figure, both on the mound and at the plate.
When he finally came to the plate during batting practice last Friday, members of Eastlake’s 9/10 all-star team lined the outfield fence on the upper Minor A field.
Legend has it that the younger Holman once deposited 17 balls during BP into the Minor A outfield — that is, the adjacent playing field.
What is fact is that Holman once struck out 17 batters in a six-inning game (a total of 18 outs) and has blasted a baseball 320 feet. After hitting two homers over the fence last Friday, he picked up a loose ball that had skipped to the plate and proceeded to throw it 205 feet over the fence for another “homer.”
More than one jaw dropped in amazement.
He’s aware of his physical prowess, but uses it to his team’s advantage.
“The home runs are exciting,” he admitted, but quickly added, “It feels like our team has a better chance of winning the more runs we put up on the scoreboard.”
Grant has played baseball since he was 5 and travel ball since he was 7.
Like everyone else on the team, this season has been the most fun he’s had in all-star play.
“It’s awesome — the excitement of chasing the dream to Williamsport,” he said. “That we’ve got this far is great. We have to just take it one game at a time from here on. If we go out there and play as a team, we’ll do well.”
So far, it’s been a winning formula.
West Region schedule
Eastlake Little League games
Friday, Aug. 2
Southern California (Eastlake) 16, Hawaii (Central East Maui) 2
Highlights: Grant Holman powered Eastlake at the plate (five hits, three RBI) and on the mound (12 strikeouts, no hits in 4.2 innings before reaching the mandatory 85-count pitch limit). Giancarlo Cortez led the Division III Southern California champions with five RBI, including three on a first-inning home run, while Micah Pietila-Wiggs contributed three hits and scored two runs and Jake Espinoza collected a pair of hits and two RBI. Eastlake pummeled Hawaii pitching for 16 hits and batted around in the fourth inning and padded its lead with seven runs in the sixth inning. Holman, who issued three walks, struck out nine consecutive batters at one point in the game.
Sunday, Aug, 4
Southern California (Eastlake) 15, Nevada (Mountain Ridge/Las Vegas) 0
Highlights: Nick Mora struck out six batters and allowed just two hits in four innings of work in Eastlake's run-rule win. He also generated three hits at the plate and drove in five runs, including three on a first-inning home run. Micah Pietila-Wiggs blasted a three-run home run while Jake Espinoza drove in two runs as Eastlake improved to 2-0 in pool play. Eastlake racked up 13 hits and batted around in three of the four innings.
Tuesday, Aug. 6
Southern California (Eastlake) 11, Utah (Dixie/St. George) 3
Highlights: Eastlake moved out to an early 6-0 lead, then added two more runs in the top of the fourth inning on doubles by Jake Espinoza and Rennard Williams to build a commanding 8-1 lead. Micah Pietila-Wiggs, Grant Holman and Cortez each had two hits in Tuesday’s victory while Cortez and Nick Mora each drove in a pair of runs. Pietila-Wiggs, who scored his team’s opening run in the first inning on a wild pitch, tripled in the fifth inning while Charly Peterson smacked a solo home run in the second inning. Eastlake, which has outscored its opening three opponents 42-5, improved to 3-0 in pool play.
Wednesday, Aug. 7
Northern California (Belmont-Redwood Shores) 3, Southern California (Eastlake) 2
Highlights: Eastlake’s daunting 16-game winning streak came to an end in the final pool game of the West Region tournament. The game against the Northern California state champions determined which of the two teams would received the No. 1 seed and which would receive the No. 2 seed for Friday’s four-team semifinal playoffs. Eastlake squandered an early 2-0 lead in Wednesday’s pool finale pitting teams with 3-0 records. Giancarlo Cortez doubled in teammate Micah Pietila-Wiggs, who had reached base on a single. Later in the opening inning, Nick Mora walked and eventually came home on a wild pitch. The Nor Cal champions rallied with two runs in the third inning to tie the game on a sharply-hit ball just inside the right foul line by Nicholas Lopez and later pushed across a single run in the fourth inning on a pinch-hit double by Jake Stulbarg to go up by a run. Belmont-Redwood Shores held Eastlake to just four hits in grabbing the win. Eastlake was denied a potential third run in the first inning when Grant Holman was thrown out at the plate.
Friday, Aug. 9
(2) Southern California (Eastlake) vs. (3) Nevada (Mountain Ridge), 2 p.m. (ESPN2)
(1) Northern California (Belmont-Redwood Shores) vs. (4) Arizona (Chandler National), 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, Aug. 10
Southern California-Nevada winner vs. Northern California-Arizona winner, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
How can I watch?
All four of Eastlake's round-robin games at the Little League West Regional will be webcast on ESPN3, which is available to Cox High Speed Internet customers. Eastlake Tavern & Bowl will also host viewing parties for all of Eastlake's games, as long as the team remains in the tournament.
Eastlake Tavern & Bowl is located at 801Showroom Place. Call 565-2695 for information.
Eastlake Little League fundraiser
Eastlake Little League will host a fundraiser at Eastlake Tavern & Bowl on Saturday, Aug. 3. Registration begins at 9 a.m. The tournament will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Adult registrationb is $30 per player and includes pizza and refreshments; 12-under registation fee is $20 and also includes pizza and refreshments.
The adult tournament winner will receive an Eastlake Tavern & Bowl family package ($200 value) and free 2014 Eastlake Little League registration fees.
The 12-under tournament winner will receive a bowling pin trophy signed by the Eastlake 12-under all-star team.
For those not wishing to bowl, 10 percent of all food sales will be donated to the Eastlake 12-under all-star team to help defray travel expenses. Visit http://www.eastlakelittleleague.vicid.net/index.php for more information and a printable flyer.