HOMECOMING

Little Leaguers return home to fans, family

2011-08-28T23:20:00Z 2011-08-29T01:50:06Z Little Leaguers return home to fans, familyBy CHELSEA KROTZER Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 28, 2011 11:20 pm  • 

After 26 days on the road, 12-year-old Andy Maehl said he was most excited to sleep in his own bed and see his dog again.

Maehl and the rest of the Big Sky All-Stars returned to Billings after almost a month away from home fighting to win the Little League World Series. The team made it to the U.S. championship game, falling to California 11-2 on Saturday. It was the only game the team lost in the series.

The victory against California a few days earlier, won on an extra-innings home run, is what player Ian Leatherberry will remember most.

"The walk-off against the West," Leatherberry said. "Hanging out with my team and making it that far will always stick."

Team members looked fatigued coming down the stairs at Billings Logan International Airport but managed smiles when they saw the terminal filled with cheering friends, family members and fans donning Big Sky T-shirts and "Welcome Home" signs.

"It was kind of a long flight," Maehl said. "We woke up and didn't know if we were really leaving."

The All-Stars got up in Williamsburg, Pa., at 10 a.m. and drove to Washington, D.C., to catch a 3 p.m. flight. The first plane arrived in Billings at around 10:20 p.m., followed by another flight just after 11.

The first teammates to arrive picked up their bags and then headed back up the stairs to wait for their teammates.

Maehl's grandparents, Carl and Karen Maehl, from Helena, came out to get him. Most of the team's parents weren't arriving until Monday.

"He was a little tired, and a little hungry," Karen Maehl said.  "I was out during the first game, and it was so fun to watch it there and here at home."

Fans of player Cole McKenzie were also waiting, signs in hand, to welcome him home. That group included his uncle, Barry McKenzie, who played in the same league when he was a boy.

"It's been pretty amazing to watch this whole thing happen," Barry McKenzie said. "It's even hard for me to talk about."

Barry was able to make it out to the first two games in the World Series when Big Sky played Rapid City and Louisiana. Through it all, he said Cole hasn't let anything go to his head.

"He is still a shy, nice kid," Barry said. "If any kid can go through what he's gone through and stay the same person he was before he started, he can."

Not everyone was a relative or close family friend. Others came simply to support the team and show pride for Billings.

All of Mabel Johnson's children are already grown and gone through Little League, but she loves the team just the same.

"I came here just to see little Connor" Kieckbusch, Johnson said, smiling. "I think it's just wonderful what these boys have done."

Johnson snapped a photo of Connor as he was reunited with friends and family. Another woman who just got off the plane with the team was carrying a white piece of paper with seven of the team's signatures.

The autographs were for Suzie Hoggatt's grandson, who played for the All-Star little league team out of New Mexico.

"They were so cute, they were all excited to get home," Hoggatt said. "Such neat little kids, I told them how proud the whole town was."

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