Rich Todd wasn’t even sure they were going to have a season.
The coach of the Sammamish-based Eastlake Little League All-Stars baseball team, Todd already had seen the 2020 season, including the Little League World Series, canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and worried the same might happen this year.
“It’s super special that we were able to have a season, have an All-Star tournament, and have a little bit of normalcy back in our lives,” he said. “To have this coming out of a pandemic, I think it actually makes it even more special. It really does.”
Representing Washington at the Northwest Region tournament in San Bernardino, California, last week and playing for a berth in the Little League World Series, the ELL All-Stars relied on a strong outing from pitcher Eli Jones, who went 4 2/3 innings and struck out nine, and a six-run third inning to beat Boulder Arrowhead Little League of Billings, Montana, by a 10-4 score.
It’s the second time a team from Eastlake Little League has made the trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, with its most recent appearance in 2013. This is also the first time Washington’s representative has earned a trip to the Little League World Series since Walla Walla Little League in 2017.
Todd credits the team’s mental discipline and hustle and said the players’ love for competing together has helped them reach a pinnacle of youth sports.
“The last week has just taken their relationship to a whole new level,” he said. “I joke and say, ‘Hey these kids aren’t going to come back the way they came in,’ and it’s true because they’ve bonded so tightly and they’ve gotten to know each other — it’s almost like family.”
For the past two and a half months Eastlake has swept the competition aside, starting with the district tournament July 12. Two weeks later, the ELL All-Stars beat Lake Stevens Little League 6-0, earning the right to represent Washington in the Northwest tournament.
Once again, the ELL All-Stars dominated the competition. They beat Lake Oswego (Oregon) 5-0 in the opener and then advanced past Knik (Alaska), which was forced to withdraw because of a positive COVID-19 test.
Alaska’s forfeit gave the ELL All-Stars a chance to claim the LLWS berth, and they got the job done. Todd credited assistant coaches Ajay Jagannathan and Kameron Rasch for helping create the game plan.
ELL president Nicole Steinbok, whose son plays on the team, said she’s still shocked they won the state tournament, and now they are headed to Williamsport.
“In the spring of each year, we give out information about All-Stars,” she said. “To set expectations, we tell folks, ‘Your season could be over in two games, or it could last basically two months of games.’ To have a team go that far is just amazing.”
Steinbok said the team’s success has stirred up interest in the Sammamish community, and watch parties have been held at the Pine Lake Ale House.
“That’s a really fun aspect of it, is bringing our community together,” she said.
And while the community shows up for the ELL All-Stars, the team is trying to show out for them. Todd and Steinbok say they’ve had talks with players, parents and coaches from the 2013 team to know what to expect.
But a recent loss has brought the two Sammamish LLWS teams closer.
In early June, Jamie Matsuoka, an active member of the Eastlake baseball community who was an assistant on the 2013 ELL team, died. So the ELL All-Stars decided to honor him, wearing a Little League patch on one shoulder and inscribing, “In loving memory of Coach Mats” on the other.
Todd thinks the players haven’t quite realized the magnitude of their achievement. But when they head to the LLWS, he hopes they can play their game — no matter the result.
“Now it’s just a matter of going out there, doing what we can do best, making a minimal amount of errors, and playing our game that we know we can,” he said. “Do I think that we’ll do well? I hope we do well and we’ll embrace any kind of success we can find playing our game there and taking that approach.”
The Little League World Series begins Thursday, when Hawaii and Connecticut square off at 10 a.m.
The ELL All-Stars’ first game is at 4 p.m. Friday against the Southeast B representatives, Wylie Little League from Abilene, Texas.
Due to the pandemic, no international teams will participate this year.