Federal mandate -Little League All-Stars played to win, but played for the fun of it first

August 23, 2008|By DAN KAUFFMAN

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - In a lot of ways, the Federal Little League 11-12 All-Stars could not have written a better ending to their fairy tale-like summer of 2008.

On Tuesday night, in front of hundreds of supporters from Hagerstown and Washington County, under the lights at Little League's most storied field, Lamade Stadium, Federal took the field with no pressure and one goal: Have fun.

And have fun, they certainly did.

"We weren't really expecting to advance (to the semifinals), player Adam Blenckstone said. "We were just going in there and we wanted to end our Little League careers happy."

A 15-5 loss to Mill Creek, Wash., on Monday left Federal with a next-to-impossible chance to advance in a three-way 2-1 tie atop Pool A because the tiebreaker involves runs allowed. Federal manager Bill Abeles Jr. and coach Doug Hornbecker understood that, so they made enjoying the moment the focus.


"We both realized this is a wonderful, magical ride we're on, and we tried to keep that in their minds," Abeles said. "We wanted to keep it in the kids' minds what a great opportunity and experience they had."

With the pressure lifted from their shoulders, Federal took the field against an undefeated Lake Charles, La., squad and played arguably its best game of the summer.

Mark Grunberg and Ryan Byard made spectacular defensive plays that put both of them on ESPN highlight reels, and Byard, Andrew Yacyk and Zane Schreiber hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in a 6-4 victory that put the cap on an exhilarating 43-day odyssey that started with Federal's first game in the Maryland District 1 tournament.

"It's just a dream come true to play in the Little League World Series, and we got to do it and finish with a win in a night game with everybody supporting us," Yacyk said.

Federal will be one of only two teams at the Little League World Series to leave with a winning record and a victory in its final game. The other will be the world champion, to be crowned this afternoon at 3:30 on ABC.

"We're very fortunate as coaches, I think. Our pitching staff was stretched to the limit, and I'm not sure how it would have gone in the semifinals," Abeles said. "It was a great way to end. We got a win, got to be on national TV and leave with a winning record."

Before Tuesday's ceremonial first pitch - which was thrown by Harold Ridenour, the manager of National Little League's 1950 World Series team - Abeles found a way to make the players understand the true significance of the game they were about to play by having them race out to center field and touch the statue of Howard J. Lamade.

"I wasn't sure they were thinking of the game as being as a meaningful moment in their lives, but I wanted them to get a sense of the history of the moment," Abeles said.

Grunberg gave his teammates and Federal's fans something to cheer right away, racing in from deep center field to make a diving catch on the first play of the game. The catch was featured on SportsCenter's Top 10 plays Tuesday night.

Then the power that was a huge part of Federal's run through the Mid-Atlantic Regional but had disappeared for the most part in the World Series resurfaced. The back-to-back-to-back blasts in the third inning gave Federal a 4-0 lead, and also became a part of SportsCenter's Top 10 plays.

"It was cool to see," Schreiber said. "It was our last Little League game and we got to be on SportsCenter. It was a good way to end it."

There was more. In the fourth, Byard raced to shallow left field and made an incredible diving catch on a blooper. No one in the stadium was more surprised than Byard - "I didn't think I was going to catch it, I just jumped for the cameras," Byard admitted during the postgame press conference - and his catch was the No. 1 Web Gem on Baseball Tonight.

"It's a lot of fun for them. The kids get to go back to the dorm, and the first thing they do is flip on the TV and watch Top 10 plays," Abeles said. "ESPN has been great."

Yacyk - who was touted as one of the top stars of the World Series for both his pitching and his hitting - held a potent Louisiana lineup to one hit and no runs in five innings.

"I never thought it would happen," Yacyk said. "They have a great hitting team, but I hit my spots and they played great defense."

Before Tuesday's jaw-dropping defensive efforts, it was Yacyk who made the play of the World Series in the field for Federal. Clinging to a 3-2 lead with two outs in the sixth inning against Indiana, Yacyk came off the first-base bag to catch Schreiber's throw from third base, then dived and touched the bag with his glove just in time to beat the runner and seal the victory. That play also made ESPN's highlight reel.

It was a summer full of highlights for the Federal All-Stars:

* Dalton Jobe hit a pair of three-run home runs in Federal's 16-5 victory over Conococheague in the District 1 winners' bracket final on July 11.

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