SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- August 24 is the first day of class at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Billings. Eighth-graders Cole McKenzie and Patrick Zimmer won't be there, but they have a valid excuse.
They're going to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
McKenzie, Zimmer and their teammates on the Big Sky All-Stars of Billings made history on Saturday afternoon by becoming the first Montana team to earn a trip to the Little League World Series -- beating Bend South Little League of Bend, Ore., 7-1 in the championship of the Northwest Regional.
History had already been clinched when Big Sky became the first Montana team to reach the regional championship. Now the players, coaches and parents' wildest dreams are a reality.
"I think all of our goals were to make it to San Bernardino," said Zimmer, the winning pitcher on Saturday. "Once we started playing here, we thought we could actually win this."
The crafty right-hander threw five superb innings and held Oregon to four hits, including a solo home run in the fifth inning -- long after the game was decided.
Big Sky broke open a 1-0 game with six runs in the fourth inning, highlighted by a grand slam by McKenzie. It was the third home run in six games in the regional for McKenzie, who went 3 for 3 on Saturday to finish the tournament with an unearthly .684 batting average (13 for 19) and 11 RBIs.
"We tried to pitch around him," Oregon head coach Brad Waterman said. "The kid's a great hitter. There aren't many holes in his swing. We tried to find them ... and the kid's just solid."
Big Sky plays Rapid City, S.D., or Kearney, Neb., the champion of the Midwest Region, at 1 p.m. Mountain time Thursday in the second game of the Little League World Series, which runs through Aug. 28.
As is often the case at the 11- and 12-year-old level, Big Sky's road was paved with a bit of luck.
The good fortune began for Big Sky (5-1) in Thursday's semifinal round, when No. 4 seed Oregon (3-3) dealt No. 1 seed Washington (4-1) its first loss of the tournament.
No. 2 seed Big Sky beat No. 3 seed Idaho 6-2 in its semifinal game on Thursday.
After retiring the first three Oregon hitters in order Saturday, Zimmer led off the bottom of the first inning with a single to right field. Back-to-back singles by Connor Kieckbusch and McKenzie, sandwiched around a throwing error, allowed Zimmer to score from third base for the game's first run.
The 1-0 score held as a pitcher's duel briefly emerged between Zimmer and Noah Yunker. The Oregon right-hander recorded his sixth strikeout to start the fourth inning before another surge of luck kicked in for Big Sky.
Brock MacDonald's low-arcing infield fly fell to the ground when the Oregon second baseman tripped and fell near the edge of the outfield grass. The next two Big Sky batters, Ian Leatherberry and Jet Campbell, laid down perfect bunts down the third-base line for infield singles.
Zimmer came to bat with the bases loaded and hit a routine ground ball to first base. The throw came home, MacDonald slid home safely to make it 2-0, and the bases remained loaded. The next batter, Kieckbusch, reached on a fielder's choice when the throw came to home plate again.
Pinch-runner Gabe Sulser was thrown out, but the bases were still loaded for McKenzie with two outs -- the perfect prelude for the first grand slam of the tournament for the left-handed batting slugger.
"I just wanted to get a base hit," McKenzie said. "Maybe score two runs, back up the middle, the gap -- anywhere."
When the ball landed just beyond the center-field fence, the final outcome was all but assured. The next batter, Ben Askelson, launched a solo home run to left field for insurance.
Sean Jones relieved Zimmer to record the final three outs, including a strikeout of Yunker that touched off a wild celebration on the field.
The Big Sky team will not return to Billings before the World Series. The team is booked on a flight out of Los Angeles on Sunday morning and is scheduled to arrive in Pennsylvania on Sunday evening.
"I don't know what they're thinking back there (in Billings)," Big Sky head coach Gene Carlson said. "I'm sure it's a big deal. I don't know. I'm kind of glad we're here, isolated, not in with all the pressure and the stuff going on back home."
The Big Sky roster includes Ben Askelson, Jet Campbell, Sean Jones, Conner Kieckbusch, Pearce Kurth, Ian Leatherberry, Andy Maehl, Brock MacDonald, Cole McKenzie, Dawson Smith, Gabe Sulser and Patrick Zimmer.
Head coach Gene Carlson is assisted by Mark Kieckbusch and Tom Zimmer.