To understand Walla Walla, look at its past

The seeds were planted five years ago. And from that start, something big, something historic blossomed.

Walla Walla Valley Little League is playing at the Little League World Series for the first time. It is one of the biggest things to ever happen in the history of this town of 32,000. But to understand the present, one must look at the past.

This has not been a one-year journey. The core of his team has played together since age 8. Together, they have grown better each season and they have turned this dream into reality.

“We’ve been working. This has been the goal for five years,” Walla Walla manager Charles Thomsen said. “We knew it was a special group of kids. We didn’t know they could take us this far, but after we won states we thought we had a chance.”

This has been a process. A run like this does not happen overnight. It has taken a lot of work, dedication and sacrifice from coaches, players, parents and volunteers.

Each season steps were taken. Walla Walla kept improving and as 10-year-olds it finished third in the state. For a league without a decorated history, it was a major breakthrough.

Another huge step was taken last season, when Walla Walla captured the 11-year-old state championship. It was not just that Walla Walla won the title either. It was how this wrecking crew won it. Walla Walla outscored its opponents, 105-8 and made a big statement. August, 2017 was still a long way off, but Walla Walla knew it had something special brewing.

“We really thought we had a good chance to win states and get to regionals, but by no means did we look as far ahead as Williamsport,” Walla Walla Valley Little League president Erik McCollaugh said. “We know nothing is given. We had to earn it. They came together and the stars aligned and here we are.”

Not that anything came easy. Walla Walla knew teams would be coming after it extra hard this summer and nobody rested on those past accomplishments. Whether hitting the field on their own time, or working hard in the batting cages, players kept putting in the time to help give this journey the perfect ending.

“We worked hard in the offseason and worked to present ourselves the opportunity and now we’re here,” Thomsen said. “The whole team just gives it everything they’ve got at practice, but they come out and are relaxed and loose during the games. We’ve always preached that practices should be hard and games should be fun and if you make practice hard games should be easy. That’s kind of our attitude.”

That has produced historic results. But, unlike last year, Walla Walla did not steamroll its way through states. It remained undefeated entering the championship before 2010 Series qualifier Auburn defeated it, 3-2. A day later, Walla Walla trailed in the fourth inning, thundered back and won its first-ever major division state championship, 13-12.

If the story ended right there, it still would have been the best one written in league history. Instead, Walla Walla kept going strong. It stayed hungry, kept working and kept enjoying itself. Oregon defeated Walla Walla in its second Northwest Regional game but Walla Walla again fought back and earned a championship rematch. This time, Walla Walla translated its hard work into the kind of fun it will never forget as it celebrated winning a dramatic 4-3 decision while capturing the Northwest championship.

“One of the dads said they have a lot of grit and they do,” McCollaugh said. “It’s hard to keep them down. They are very resilient, very resourceful. They’re confident. They believe they can do it.”

That belief is powerful because, for a long time, it has been the big-city Seattle teams that dominated the Washington Little League scene. It is understable. Seattle has a population of 704,352 so sheer numbers give that area a huge advantage.

Walla Walla has continued chipping away at the advantage the past five seasons. It has steadily improved and has become Washington’s king of the mountain the past two seasons. Along the way this year, Walla Walla defeated two Series qualifiers from this decade. Seattle might offer more opportunities in terms of facilities and numbers but Walla Walla has proven a lot of talent and a spirited work ethic can provide quite an equalizer.

Now it is Walla Walla that is the envy of the Washington Little League world.

“Those Seattle teams have big facilities and are playing baseball year-round and they are prepared for this moment,” Thomsen said. “We kind of took it upon on ourselves with a special group of kids and played travel ball and did our own stuff in the offseason. We knew how special they were when they were 7-years-old and now we are able to compete with these guys. We’re now able to do some of the things they’re doing.”

That could continue, too. This might just be a start. Future Walla Walla Valley Little Leaguers now know what it takes. They know a Series appearance is not just some crazy dream. It can become reality and this team has shown it how.

It is so hard reaching this Series and maybe Walla Walla will never again be one of the country’s top Little League teams. Then again, maybe the next great Walla Walla team is just being formed. Maybe those young baseball players are starting their own incredible journey.

“If we can get more players competing, then the happier we are,” McCollaugh said. “For us to have a team like this come together is amazing. Everything worked perfectly. The coaches did a great job. The kids worked hard to earn it. To have the talent we have at one time is pretty special.”