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Michigan wins first LLWS championship since 1959

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Michigan players run around the outfield with the 2021 Little League World Series championship banner at Lamade Stadium on Sunday after defeating Ohio, 5-2. It’s Michigan’s first title since 1959.

Former opponents joined forces this summer. Together they grew stronger as three Taylor, Michigan teams became one.

And now Taylor is the world’s best Little League Baseball team.

Jackson Surma went 2 for 3 with four RBIs, Ethan Van Belle and Gavin Ulin left the bases loaded three times and Taylor finally vanquished a resilient Hamilton, Ohio team, 5-2 Sunday at Lamade Stadium to capture the Little League World Series championship.

Taylor is the first Michigan world champion since Hamtramck won the first championship ever played at Lamade Stadium in 1959. Talk about joining an exclusive fraternity.

“I’ve done a little bit of research. We’ve watched videos in the museum and got to see the (Hamtramck) pitcher. We’re just excited that we’re mentioned with them,” Michigan manager Rick Thorning said. “To be in that group and say that a team from Michigan won the Little League World Series, it still doesn’t sound right when you say it. This is the biggest one of them all and we just captured it.”

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Michigan's Ethan Van Belle (13) celebrates with a coach after the fifth inning of the Little League World Series Championship at Lamade Stadium on Sunday.

A league which formed last year and played its first full season this summer has given the merger of three Taylor leagues the greatest seal of approval anyone could hope for. The Taylor North Little League all-stars lost just one game all year, avenging that defeat by beating Hawaii in Saturday’s Hank Aaron championship. Taylor then turned dreams into reality against Ohio, defeating it for a second time after having previous beat it in the Great Lakes championship.

Taylor is the first Great Lakes Region world champion since Kentucky in 2002. It won three straight elimination games since that Hawaii defeat and showed again yesterday just why it is the country’s best team.

Van Belle and Ulin were spectacular under pressure, Michigan received timely hitting and started strong again, scoring three first-inning runs and building a 3-0 lead. It was a near repeat of Saturday when Michigan scored two first-inning runs and defeated Hawaii, 2-1.

The new champions earned this one the hard way and victory was not secure until Jakob Furkas caught a flyball in center field as Ulin left the tying runs on base and players’ gloves flew off their hands high into the air. Players from both teams congratulated each other following remarkable seasons before Michigan took the run of its life and ran around Lamade Stadium holding the championship banner.

After greeting their joyous parents, Michigan players again were running, this time out to center field where they jumped over the wall and patted the Howard J. Lamade bust. It is moments like those they will remember as much as the games for the rest of their lives.

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Michigan third baseman Jackson Surma (22) fields the throw as Ohio's Chase Moak (3) is safe at third base on a triple in the third inning.

“It was unbelievable. I can’t explain how I feel,” said Ulin, who also went 2 for 2 and scored two runs. “It’s been a dream my whole life to play here. I thought we might win a game here and go home, but it turns out we won it and it’s beyond emotions.”

“We’re getting ready to celebrate with a lot of people tonight that have been waiting to celebrate with us,” Thorning said. “As a coach and father, it hasn’t sunk in yet. Once I get settled in and get to celebrate it will kick in. It’s awesome.”

Michigan earned the world championship, but Ohio earned the admiration of many with its relentless pursuit of that title. Considered an underdog entering the Series, Ohio won four straight elimination games, avenged a defeat against California and downed undefeated South Dakota Saturday to win the Tom Seaver bracket championship.

The boys from the West Side Hamilton Little League made their fifth trip to the Series their best one yet and made history, becoming the first Ohio team to ever reach the Series. Gavin Saylor went 2 for 2; Chance Retherford and Kaleb Harden contained a powerful offense and Ohio pressured Michigan all day, doing everything possible to capture that world championship.

This was not a a case of Ohio losing the championship. It was simply Michigan winning it.

Ohio manager Ken Coomer declined to attend the post-game press conference featuring media from around the county, missing an opportunity to commend his players on a national scale.

Ohio appeared on the verge of a breakthrough all afternoon against a team which won the Great Lakes final, 9-1. It outhit Michigan through four innings and loaded the bases in the first, fourth and sixth innings but managed just one run during those rallies.

Trailing 5-1, Ohio mounted one last threat, showcasing its tenacity yet again. Chase Moak was hit by a pitch and Tyler Donges drew a one-out walk. Harden was down to his last strike when he was hit by a pitch.

JJ Vogel then drew an RBI walk and the go-ahead run came to the plate. Retherford gave it a ride out to center field, and it initially looked like his drive might fall in. Furkas, though, read the ball the entire way, settled under it and made, arguably, the biggest catch in Michigan Little League history.

“When it first was hit, I was like, ‘Oh no! Is it out?'” Surma said.. “As soon as I saw our outfielder track it, I put my hands on my head and was like, ‘Let’s go!'”

Surma helped make the offense go all afternoon and was money in pressure situations. After Ulin walked and Cam Throning hit an infield single, Surma gave Michigan a 2-0 first-inning lead when he ripped a two-run single into left field. Michigan was up two in the fifth inning when Surma delivered again.

This time Lucas Farner and Ulin set the table with singles and moved into scoring position on a wild pitch. Surma again cleared the table, this time ripping his two-run single into center field as Michigan went up, 5-1.

How big that hit was revealed itself in the sixth when Ohio mounted its final rally and scored the game’s last run.

“The first one I had runners on first and third. There weren’t two outs, so I was just looking to put something in play. I put the bat on it and drove it to left,” Surma said. “The second one he threw a high fastball, and I went up and got it and got those two in.”

Van Belle has been Michigan’s ace all summer and never buckled despite Ohio putting the heat on him. He induced a popout and collected his first strike out to leave the bases loaded in the first. Two innings later, Ohio loaded the bases with no outs and appeared poised to erase a 3-1 deficit.

This time, Van Belle struck out the next two batters before Thorning, the catcher, caught the runner on third wandering too far from the bag and threw him out. Van Belle then struck out the side in the fourth inning and fanned the final five batters he faced.

“That’s been Ethan. He wants something so bad. He’s a bulldog and I truly mean that. He doesn’t like giving up hits,” Rick Thorning said. “He threw the ball hard and threw it well. He typically gets us out of those situations against big teams in big games.”

Ulin did so over the final two innings as well. His defense provided a big assist in the fifth inning after Vogel walked and Noah Davidson hit a one-out single, putting the tying runs on plate. Shortstop, Van Belle, playing second, and first baseman Max LaForest turned an inning-ending double play and Michigan again stomped out an Ohio fire.

Maybe that was why Ulin remained calm after Ohio made it 5-2 in the sixth inning and put the tying runners on base. Players who were once his opponents were now his teammates and friends.

He had their back and they his. One pitcher later they also had a world championship and an unforgettable moment.

“It was a great feeling after I got out of it,” Ulin said. “Once I got him to pop it out, I was so happy. It was beyond words.”

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