Cheers from an adoring crowd could be heard outside Hooligan’s Sports Bar on Saturday as Cole McKenzie hit a grand slam to cement the Northwest Regional Little League championship for Billings’ Big Sky All Stars.
Family, friends and fellow team members crowded into the back room, eyes glued to the bar’s giant 12-foot screen as the team took the regional title, beating the Oregon team — Bend South — 7-1 in San Bernardino, Calif.
It’s the first time that a team from Montana has made it to the Little League World Series, which starts Thursday in Williamsport, Pa.
Big Sky will play Thursday at 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
“No one had any thoughts of going this far,” said Stan Elison, a member of the Big Sky Little League board. “The people that coached these guys and watched them know it was a special team.”
The crowd was on their feet as McKenzie rounded the bases at the bottom of the fourth inning, his grand slam putting the score at 6-0, followed by another home run hit by Ben Askelson.
Cheers and laughter filled the room as ESPN camera crews showed two Big Sky fans holding the home run balls.
By the top of the sixth, everyone was clapping in unison as relief pitcher Sean Jones struck out the final batter from the Oregon team. Some took photos of the play with their camera phones. Children stood on chairs to see. Everyone in the room was either high-fiving or hugging and screaming “Go Montana” by the end of the game.
Joseph Zimmer, 15, was at the bar watching his brother Patrick pitch the first five innings.
“It’s pretty weird seeing your brother, who’s only 13, playing baseball on ESPN,” Zimmer said. “For these guys, this is pretty amazing. No one had even won a regional before this.”
Zimmer was able to attend some of his brother’s games in California, but had to fly back on Thursday. He’s not sure yet if he’ll be able to go to the first of the Little League World Series games.
“It’s just a really good group of kids that play well together and practice well,” Zimmer said, who used to play shortstop for Big Sky.
Patrick Zimmer pitched for five innings, only giving up one run on four hits.
Elison said the players will be getting on a plane headed straight to Pennsylvania, a quick turnaround for parents.
“The kids had a blast, and I think Billings itself will go nuts,” Elison said.
The fans will be back at Hooligan’s on Thursday to continue to support the Billings team.