Johnston, Iowa, team is 1 in a million

If they could have used more they would have.

Little League Baseball rules prohibit all-star teams from carrying more than 14 players so the Johnston, Iowa, Little League had to stop there. And what a team it chose.

It might be a cliche, but it also was so true. All 14 players contributed for Johnston and helped it put together the most successful Little League World Series run a Midwest team ever has had since the region was established in 2001. Johnston finished fourth in the U.S. and became the first Midwest team that won multiple Series games.

Southeast Region champ Goodlettsville, Tennessee, ended Johnston’s run Wednesday, but all 14 Johnston players carved out a unique place while here.

“We don’t have a couple of superstars on this team. All our players are superstars in our eyes. I’m happy with all of them,” Johnston manager Duane Pineda said. “Our subs are just as good as our starters. They’ve been good all year. That’s why we went with 14. We had 14 kids that deserved to be on the team. We have confidence in everyone on the team.”

It showed throughout the Series as Iowa stunned West champ California in its opening game, then rallied for a thrilling 3-2 win over New England titlist Rhode Island when Kaiden Dinh hit a walk-off single. Dinh drove home Pineda’s point, coming off the bench to hit a game-tying home run in the fifth inning and then the game-winning single an inning later.

Reserves sparked two crucial rallies in the 5-1 California win and also helped Johnston come within an inning of reaching the U.S. final two days later against Great Lakes champ Bowling Green, Kentucky. It did not matter who was on the field. Every Johnston player found a way to make a mark at the Series and throughout the Series.

“There’s all kinds of different talent on the team, but everyone contributes in his own way,” Johnston Little League President Mark Avaux said. “Everybody has a talent and Duane has done an incredible job working with the kids. You can’t find a more supportive advocate than Duane. Duane is the cream of the crop when it comes to interaction with kids. He’s just a great man and we’re blessed to have him as the leader of the team.”

Johnston made history before it even set foot in South Williamsport. Before this season no Johnston team had captured a state championship. Johnston did that when it avenged a defeat against perennial power Davenport Northwest in the state final and then kept going. Johnston cruised through the Midwest Regional and then set itself apart from previous Midwest teams when it arrived.

Johnston was the 16th Midwest champion to play at the Series. It also was the best.

Take away any one of those 14 players and it likely does not play out that way.

“When we put the team together we didn’t have a thought of coming to Williamsport. Everybody thinks that it would be great to go to the Little League World Series, but we didn’t actually really think we would be here,” Pineda said. “This is fantastic. We tell all the kids, just be ready when we call your number and they all know they’re going to be ready. Everyone knows their roles on this team.”

Johnston played near flawless baseball its first three games here, making no errors, receiving solid pitching and getting timely hitting from different players. It also proved as tough as talented, overcoming deficits against California and Rhode Island.

Johnston became the first Series team to beat California in its opening game since 2002. Still, the game that best symbolized what the team represented came against Rhode Island. Johnston lost a 14-4 extra-inning game the previous night and play did not conclude until 11:30 p.m. The Midwest champ then had to play at 3 p.m. Tuesday and faced Rhode Island’s ace.

Rhode Island took a 1-0 first-inning lead before Dinh tied it with a home run in the fifth. Rhode Island went up again 2-1 in the sixth inning and it appeared Johnston might finally be finished. Instead, Josh Larson and Dinh hit consecutive pitches for a game-tying and game-winning single, respectively.

“They’re a good team,” Rhode Island manager Ken Rix said. “Those boys stepped up when they were against the wall.”

Bottom of the order or top of the order, starter or reserve, it did not matter. Johnston almost always found a way to win. It happened in a district tournament game when Johnston overcame a five-run, sixth-inning deficit and continued at the Series. Even in its two Series losses, Johnston overcame deficits to take temporary leads.

“It’s very comforting because all around our lineup we’re a great team,” said shortstop Miles Risley, who made several highlight plays. “We play the field very well and we hit well too.”

Johnston players and coaches have not been home in three weeks. They have an idea what awaits them when they return home, but it might take the young players years before they realize how big what they achieved truly is, although the Johnston fans likely will try and convince them when they celebrate their heroes coming home.

“I can’t even keep up with all the support. I can’t wait to get back home and thank all the people in person,” Pineda said. “The whole experience getting here is tremendous.”

So is his team.