SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The Big Sky All-Stars' amazing run at the Little League World Series came to an end Saturday with an 11-2 loss to the Ocean View All-Stars in the U.S. championship game.
The defeat ends an incredible saga for the 12 players and three coaches, one that started in late June in Billings. Big Sky won a district and state championship in Montana before going in early August to San Bernardino, Calif., where it won the Northwest Region championship, becoming the first Montana team to do so.
The team then immediately left for South Williamsport, where it played a total of four games, losing only one. Up until the last game Saturday, Big Sky was the only undefeated American team, and the team's final record from start to finish was 20-2.
"They had a great run, and they all played exceptionally well," Big Sky manager Gene Carlson said after the game. "They got beat by a good team, and they have nothing to be ashamed of."
California will face Japan on Sunday at 10 a.m. Mountain time in the World Series championship game. Billings would have played Mexico in a consolation game, but Hurricane Irene forced Little League officials to cancel that matchup and move the championship game up by three hours to avoid expected heavy rain. On Sunday, the game was moved back to a 3 p.m. EDT start.
The Big Sky team beat the Ocean View team from Huntington Beach, Calif., on Wednesday by a score of 1-0 to make it to the U.S. championship. The California team got there by beating the Keystone All-Stars from Harney County, Pa., in a loser-out game Thursday night. Ocean View then came back to beat Billings on Saturday.
The California team scored early, and that momentum was hard for the Big Sky team to overcome, Carlson said.
He praised the pitching of Ocean View pitcher Nick Pratto, calling his performance stellar "with a 75 mph fastball and a good curve."
And Carlson said the California team made the most of their opportunities in the game.
Carlson said the Big Sky boys were sad after the game, but he predicted that they would bounce back in an hour or so. He said he's proud to be their coach.
"They're a great bunch of kids," he said.
Carlson said he was disappointed not to be able to play Mexico on Sunday, "but we can't control the weather."
"Just being here was a great thing," the Billings manager said. "So anything else up and above this is something unbelievable."
After the game ended, the parents and families of the Big Sky players stood and clapped and cheered for the boys as they went out on the field to congratulate the California team.
Later, outside the dorms where the boys and coaches have been staying, the disappointed Big Sky players trickled out to meet with parents. Many came out with sad faces and tears, walking into mothers' arms to get a hug and some encouragement.
Not long after, some started smiling as they chatted with families, talking about getting back to life in Billings.
The parents had nothing but positive words for how their boys have played throughout the two-month run.
Sam Campbell, Jet Campbell's father, said the boys played really well, "and we couldn't be any prouder of them."
"They kept their chins up and they never gave up," he said. "We're just so proud of them, and we're thankful to Montana for getting behind us and supporting us."
Dani Kieckbusch, mother of Connor Kieckbusch, said she is impressed in so many ways by the Big Sky players.
"I couldn't be more proud of our boys in how they played with such class and sportsmanship and grace," she said. "They have taught all of us more than we have ever known about friendship, loyalty and what it means to play baseball."
Mark Sulser, father of player Gabe Sulser and head coach of the Senior High Broncs varsity football team, hopped on a red-eye flight Friday to get to South Williamsport in time for Saturday's game. He said it was worth the trip.
"I'm so glad I got to see the end of it, and I'm just so proud to be here," Sulser said.
He said his mind was in two places all week, working with the football players and thinking about how Gabe was doing. Sulser added that even though the boys were unhappy after the game, they have a lot ahead of them.
"I think so many of them have Little Guy football and hockey and other things to look forward to," Sulser said. "They'll come back and celebrate their successes and then move on to their fall sports and to school."
Julie Smith, mother of Dawson Smith, said that between the regional tournament and the World Series, her family has only been home for four days in August. She said it's nice to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to get home to a little normalcy.
"They'll be sad to go, but there's some fun things to look forward to at home, too," Smith said.
She said the boys have been somewhat sheltered from all the excitement back in Montana over the team's amazing run.
Plans are in the works for a downtown parade and community celebration at Dehler Park on Sept. 3. More details, including the parade route, are expected to be released Wednesday.
"They're probably going to be very, very surprised at everything the community has done," Smith said. "They have no idea what's in store for them."