SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — When the Big Sky All-Stars won their first game at the Little League World Series on Thursday afternoon, it was a team effort.
For the boys, the coaches and the parents.
It's been quite a ride for the boys from the Big Sky Little League in Billings who have only played together on the All-Star team since the end of June. Their record is now 18-1 since they started on the journey toward the World Series.
With Thursday's 6-4 win over Rapid City, S.D., at Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the team will play Sunday at noon MDT against the Southwest Region champion from Lafayette, La. The Louisiana team beat the Southeast champion from Georgia 2-0 on Thursday night.
As they have from the start, the Big Sky parents were in the stands Thursday cheering on their boys. Clustered together on the third-base side of the stadium, they called out encouragement when the boys were struggling early in the game and when they had a big inning that put them ahead for good.
"Let's go, Brock!" one parent called out when centerfielder Brock MacDonald came up to bat.
"Good eye, Brock," another one said when he didn't swing at a pitch the umpire called a ball.
And they all cheered him when the Rapid City pitcher walked him and he trotted to first base.
The parents remained poised as an ESPN cameraman frequently aimed his camera in their faces for close-ups. And in the last inning of the game, they yelled a chorus of "Here we go Big Sky, here we go!"
When the team won, parents grinned from ear to ear and hugged and congratulated one another.
"Every little boy that plays baseball dreams of this, and our boys get to play it," Dani Kieckbusch, mother of Connor Kieckbusch, said after the game. "To be playing in front of 11,000 people, you're nervous for them, but you're also so excited for them."
Jody Sulser, mother of Gabe Sulser, said to get a win at the World Series is incredible.
"What could be better than that?" she said.
Erin Zimmer, who's husband, Tom, is one of the coaches and whose son Patrick plays on the team, said she decided to wear her blue Big Sky All-Stars shirt to the game.
"I wore it for good luck, for the first game," she said.
The road to Williamsport for the parents hasn't been all that easy. Brian Kurth, father of player Pearce Kurth, said some parents had to drive down to Cody to catch a flight because none were available in Billings.
Lori McKenzie, mother of Cole, drove with her husband, Kelly, and daughter Kate to San Bernardino, where they stayed for 11 days. When the team won the championship, the family drove straight home, Lori and Kelly went to work on Monday and then had to turn around and ask for more time off.
Lori, who works for Costco, and Kelly, who is employed by GE, both got great support from their companies to come to Pennsylvania. They got into Philadelphia on Thursday at 4 a.m., drove to their hotel and then came to the ball field.
Asked about the strain on the finances, Lori said her family has had some help.
"We have a lot of friends and family support and that helped out," she said.
Jody Sulser joked that another parent suggested the team motto should be: "Going to find 80 ways to cook Top Ramen when we get home."
Lori McKenzie said now that she's in South Williamsport at the World Series, it's almost unreal.
"We're usually watching it on TV," she said. "To be here is very exciting and to win was even better."
As for the boys, they relaxed after the game and enjoyed 45 minutes with their families before going off to eat dinner.
Gabe Sulser said the team got off to a slow start, but after a couple of innings adjusted to the Rapid City pitcher and started getting some hits.
Walking into the stadium and seeing thousands of spectators thrilled him, he said.
"I was nervous to go into the game, but right when I saw it, I got almost a chill in my body and after an inning or two, I got used to it," he said.
He's also enjoyed meeting the other teams. The Big Sky All-Stars are staying in a dorm with the Chinese players and have been hanging out with the Japanese players.
"They're really nice kids," he said. "We're kind of teaching them a little English and they're teaching us some Japanese and Chinese, so it's cool, it's fun."
Brock MacDonald, one of the players who was interviewed by ESPN, said it was a little scary.
"I was kind of nervous, but it was exciting to be interviewed," he said.
Cole McKenzie said he's had fun in the rec room playing pingpong and air hockey with the Japanese. Asked who tends to win the games, he said the Japanese players have the upper hand.
Cole said coming to Williamsport is a dream come true.
"It feels great," he said. "It's fun here."
Connor Kieckbusch was happy about the outcome of the game.
"It felt great to get a win under our belt in Williamsport," he said. "It feel great just to know we're the first Montana team in history to be here."
He said the Big Sky team isn't one that gets down on itself, "so we kept fighting," he said. "And that one inning where we got five runs, it gave us a boost and then we won."
He added that he's especially glad to be enjoying the time with his family and with the players, who are also good friends.
Sean Jones knows the series doesn't stop at one game.
"We know we have to come back and play the next game, too," he said. "But we know that we worked our butts off and it's all starting to pay off now."
Manager Gene Carlson said the boys will probably practice on Friday and then take it easy. He's said the first few days have been quite a ride.
"It's been a fun trip," Carlson said. "The kids are having fun, the coaches are having fun. It's incredible."