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Montoursville 1 win from Series in 1987

PHOTO PROVIDED The 1987 Montoursville Major Division all-stars came one win from reaching the Little League World Series. In the first row, kneeling: Tim Bennett and Mark Hartland. Second row, from left: Chris DiMarco, Matt Salvatori, Scott Witonsky, Greg Leiter, Shawn Meckley and Kevin DiMarco. Back row, from left: Joe Farley, Jason Bennett, Chris Heinbach, Kevin Gawblick, MIke Shannon and Gary Hetler. In the fourth row are, from left, manager Jim Bennett, coach Jack Farley and coach Tony Salvatori.

Parents, kids and area baseball fans were tailgating at the Montoursville Little League field next to Lyter Elementary School. In the press box, the radio was being played so people could hear the game.

It wasn’t your everyday, run-of-the-mill game they were listening to. The reason all those fans were tailgating is their hometown Little League major baseball team was on the cusp of making league history.

The year was 1987 and Montoursville was hoping to break through at the Eastern Regional tournament in Bristol, Connecticut.

“The town was very excited. There was a lot of support from the burough and even outside as well,” Montoursville assistant Tony Salvatori said. “People were sitting out here tailgating and had the radio going up in the booth so that people could listen and tailgate. It was quite a big thing.”

And understandably so.

No area major baseball team had reached the Eastern Regional tournament since Newberry went in 1973. Montoursville was the first area team to play in an Eastern Regional championship since Newberry got to the World Series in 1969.

The day fans tailgated, Montoursville was faced a team from New Hampshire for the right to get to the Little League World Series. It also just so happened to be the 40th anniversary of the first Series.

Montoursville didn’t get lucky either. The team in 1987 had great pitching and excellent hitters. While in Bristol, ABC’s Wide World of Sports followed the team in anticipation of Montoursville reaching the World Series.

But it never happened.

Montoursville fell to New Hampshire in the Eastern Regional championship game, 4-1.

“When we lost that last game, it was very hard to imagine because kids were so good. They were hitting line shots and kids were putting glove out and deflecting it. It seemed like it really bothered us, the kids were crying right away,” Montoursville manager Jim Bennett said. “By the time we left and got in our cars, the kids were joking and having a good time. Just a good group of kids. They continued to get together even now because of the memories of that.

“To get that close and it didn’t deter them from continuing to work hard and get to Senior League World Series when they were 15 year olds.”

Most of that team went on to play in the 1990 Senior League World Series in Kissimmee, Florida, as 15 year olds where it lost to Conway, Florida, 6-0, in the opener. Ultimately Montoursville placed fourth by beating Florida, 8-5, in the third-place game.

But in 1987 Montoursville didn’t tower over any opponents that summer. The team was relatively small in size, resulting in the team earning the nickname “Tater Tots” from an opposing fan during the state tournament.

“I went back to the dugout and said ‘you know what guys? They’re calling you guys tater tots, they think because you’re small they’re going to take advantage,'” Bennett said.

Montoursville beat Newberry to win the District 12 championship before going on to beat a team near State College for the section title. At the state tournament in Bethlehem, Montoursville used its pitching to beat Hermitage (8-3) in the opener, Carbino Club (4-1) in the winners’ bracket final, and Hermitage again in the championship game (6-2).

The team may have been smaller than its opponents, but Montoursville didn’t back down from anyone.

Mike Shannon powered Montoursville in the state final, striking out 15 batters and allowing just two hits. Shannon also was huge in the opener, striking out 16 and hitting a fourth-inning home run.

Shannon and Jason Bennett were the aces of the staff and carried Montoursville to the regional final.

“I don’t think there’s any Little League team that did what our pitchers did. We had only two pitchers for the whole ride,” Salvatori said. “Each kid pitched complete games every game. … We never used relief pitchers at any time. Only one team (Vermont) scored six runs on them in all those games.”

While those two aces were on fire throughout the entire summer for Montoursville, the offense could back up Bennett and Shannon as well.

That includes Matt Salvatori, who hit a home run in sectionals to rally the team, and then hit another against New Jersey in the eighth inning of regionals. Mark Hartman and Gary Hettler were able to hit the ball well and Joe Farley was an excellent defensive player at second base who, according to Salvatori, “never missed a ball.”

Timmy Bennett also was a solid catcher for Montoursville and was a leadoff hitter.

“Whenever Tim would start off with a base hit, we’d get a rally going,” Salvatori said. “He was good. A lot of good ballplayers on that team.”

In 1987, Montoursville was in the regional tournament for the second time in three years. Montoursville lost in the opening round of the 1985 Eastern Regional tournament to Staten Island, New York. It was that team in 1985 which helped show players in Montoursville they could get to that level.

Prior to Montoursville in 1985 and 1987, the only Lycoming County teams since 1951 to advance to the state tournament were Williamsport Memorial (1962) and Newberry (1951, 1969, 1973, 1978, 1984).

“When you can see through the years what has transpired in baseball history in Montoursville, that 1985 team, 1987, then kids in 1990 and this same group of kids as seniors in high school in 1992, they were undefeated state champs and went 22-0 and ranked third in the nation in USA Today,” Bennett said. “This group of kids all the way up through, put on top of that Mike Mussina and Tom O’Malley, there’s a lot there that kids aspire and they can see they’re able to reach those goals. Those are heights they can reach. I don’t think there’s any question (the 1985 run) had a positive affect on the kids.”

“I think any time you have that situation, it gives hope and fire to do better. I think that team in 1985 helped set the road along and helped get things going,” Salvatori said. “They were all good ballplayers in ’85, excellent ballplayers. I definitely think that was a big thing.”

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