While playing their respective regional tournaments in San Bernardino, Calif.; the Petaluma, Calif.; and Gresham, Ore., teams were inseparable.
They bunked together, they ate together and their parents cheered together. Now, they are experiencing life-long dreams together.
California and Oregon captured the West and Northwest championships, respectively, and both now are playing in the Little League Baseball World Series for the first time. It seemed fitting than that both shared the same bus while riding to South Williamsport earlier this week.
"The relationship with the Northern California team is great. They are great guys. That's who they bunked with, who they played cards with ... and this was their dream that they talked about the whole time and now they are experiencing it," said Rick Falkner, whose son Brett is a middle infielder and pitcher for Oregon. "It sounds corny, but that's neat to see. That's the things these kids will remember."
Falkner knows that well since he played in the 1978 West Regional tournament and remembers playing ping-pong with the Hawaii players more than the games he played. Oregon and California players are intertwined now, both heartily cheering for each other when the other is playing. Parents made T-shirts for both teams with the names of all the players from those teams so fans could cheer for them both as well.
After each played, the other players would be there to high-five them as they left the field. And do not expect that to change in South Williamsport. They might be playing for the same prize now, but they are friends now and likely friends for life.
"We have become good friends with the Petaluma group and we have so many stories from hanging with them. It's the kind of thing that brings 49-year-old guys to tears thinking about it," Oregon manager Jason Trickel said. "That's what we're here for and to get to enjoy this with Petaluma makes it even better. When you see them high-fiving after games that's Little League at its finest right there."
Parsippany, N.J., is 2 1/2 hours from Bristol, Conn., but for Par Troy East Little League fans last Sunday that seemed like a short walk. Nearly 1,000 fans drove up for the Mid-Atlantic championship, featuring their all-stars playing Delaware. The stands basically turned into a sea of red as Parsippany fans all were the color of their team.
The Parsippany mayor was among the red-clad fans who enthusiastically cheered their team onto a dramatic 1-0 win and a berth in the Little League World Series. Expect a similar, if not better showing, Friday when New Jersey plays its first Series game against San Antonio, Texas. The only difference will be New Jersey fans will have to make it a sea of blue now since the Mid-Atlantic champions wear navy blue shirts.
"We had two full bus loads of people, along with so many others driving up and it was beautiful to see," Par Troy East Little League President John Bucciarelli said. "It just shows the community atmosphere and the pride the community has in this group. It is great to see them rally around the kids."
Those kids have given Parsippany plenty to cheer, capturing the first state and regional championships in league history. They also are the first team in New Jersey history to win state championships in different age groups two years in a row. Considering 1998 world champion Toms River is included in that group tells one how impressive that is.
"There's eight teams left playing from our country and to be one of them is very rewarding," New Jersey manager Mike Ruggiero said. "I've been telling them, 'you're already here you might as well try to win. We said that at regionals and it's the same here. We'll see what happens, but it's been a great ride."
Phil Jolley and Joe Sohigian have pretty good timing. Both are in their first years as league presidents of the New Castle and Fairfield American Little Leagues, respectively, and now both are Little League World Series bound in their rookie seasons.
"It's been the ride of a lifetime," Sohigian said. "It's so great because these are good kids all-around. They do the right thing, say the right thing and they come from good families and the coaches do a great job. It's been wonderful."
Jolley did not even know he was selected as president last October. He was out the evening the board met in New Castle and elected its representatives. Jolley was thought of highly so he was voted in much to his surprise. Since then, he, like Sohigian, has worked tirelessly to help his league flourish and now is coming to a place he thought only existed on television.
It has been quite an inaugural season.
"People are coming up to me and congratulating me and telling me, 'great job,' and I'm like, 'don't congratulate me, congratulate the players and the coaches because they have done all the work,'" Jolley said. "To make it to Williamsport is unreal. Williamsport is the mecca. It's incredible."