Fun was in the journey for US teams

Four U.S. teams played their final all-star games the past two days. While the games are over, however, the fun just might be beginning.

Newark, Del.; Urbandale, Iowa; Grosse Pointe, Mich.; and Nashville, Tenn., all took their leagues and communities on unforgettable summer-long rides. When they return home they will reap the rewards as parades, big public events and constant well-wishes await.

None of those teams will win a world championship, but that really does not matter. The journey was the fun part.

“After the game we told them, ‘look at the field.’ You made it farther than any Newark National team ever has,” Mid-Atlantic Region champ Newark, Del., manager John Ludman said after Southeast titlist Nashville, Tenn., eliminated his team Monday. “They know they accomplished a lot. For any kid that plays Little League, this is the ultimate. We knew it was going to end sometime this week and it just happened to be (Monday).”

Many did not think Newark would get out of districts. Instead, Dela-ware just kept winning, becoming just the second team from its state to reach the Series. The Mid-Atlantic champ won its Series debut and had one of the biggest fan bases at South Williamsport.

Delaware also routed previously undefeated Pennsylvania in the Mid-Atlantic final. It was a team that reveled in overcoming the odds.

“It really has been a Cinderella story,” Ludman said.

Midwest champ Urbandale has a rich Little League tradition and reached the 2009 Series. This year’s team left its own mark on league history, repeatedly excelling under pressure and becoming the first Midwest team since that Urbandale squad in 2009 to win a Series game.

It went down fighting Monday, scoring three runs in the bottom of the sixth before dropping a 6-5 heartbreaker to Northwest titlist Sammamish, Wash. It was the first time in 10 elimination games that Iowa experienced defeat. It repeatedly found ways to win pressure-filled games and nearly did so again.

“They have a lot of heart, that’s for sure. They battled this whole season,” Iowa manager Robert Ball said. “To go 9-1 in 10 elimination games is a pretty good record. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Iowa nearly became the first Midwest team since the Series field expanded to 16 teams in 2001 to win two games. The way it ended its run was symbolic for a team that overcame a 3-0 deficit in the Midwest semifinals to beat defending champion Nebraska, 4-3 in 11 innings, before edging previously undefeated Minnesota, 3-2, in the final.

“We set goals at the beginning of the season and this was the goal. They practiced hard every day and achieved it,” Ball said. “They always played hard and we never lost two games in a row. We built a lot of character. It’s been a whole family experience.

“They are a bunch of great kids.”

Great Lakes champ Michigan manager Tom Mazzola expressed similar sentiments about his team. Michigan finished 0-3 at the Series but all three games were thrillers decided by six runs. The team from Grosse Pointe was the first from Michigan to reach the Series since 1998 and stunned previously undefeated Illinois in the Great Lakes Region championship.

The memories of those wins and the experience here will be remembered more than the Series results.

“The boys have been spoiled by the accommodations, the food, the equipment and the exposure,” Mazzola said. “I told the kids before the (Tuesday) game that you will probably never again play on ESPN. That’s the odds so go out and enjoy it.”

Southeast champ Nashville, Tenn., overcame the odds all summer, losing the first game of every tournament it played in before coming back and capturing each tournament championship en route to the Series. Tennessee threatened to do it again here, dropping its first game, 3-2 to Connecticut, before routing two straight opponents.

Tennessee dropped a heartbreaker, 6-5, to Washington Tuesday, but finishing fourth in the country is quite an achievement for a team that lost its first all-star game 12-3 to defending U.S. champion Good-lettsville, Tenn., before beating it twice to ignite its run to the Series.

“The team has a lot of heart,” Tennessee manager Chris Mercado said. “We’ve had a great experience here. It’s everything I imagined it would be. I think all the people will be cheering them back home when we get back. I know I miss my wife and kids and it will be nice to see them again.”

It will be nice for all those communities to welcome home their young heroes.