Six weeks before they played six consecutive games on national TV and became the Cinderella story of the 2011 Little League World Series, the Big Sky All-Stars started out just like every other Little League team in Billings.
Big Sky was one of eight all-star teams in the 11-12 Majors division of the district tournament. The talent of the Big Sky squad showed quickly, as the team went 6-0 in the round-robin portion of the tournament from July 7-13.
The winning continued in the double-elimination district tournament. Big Sky defeated Lockwood 10-0 in the first round, then downed Laurel 9-3 in the quarterfinals, then won back-to-back games over rival Boulder-Arrowhead in the semifinals and championship -- by matching scores of 6-3 -- on July 20 at Arrowhead Field and July 22 at Rose Park.
From there, it was on to Dillon for a best-of-three series for the state championship on Saturday, July 30. Big Sky swept the series in two games -- by scores of 15-7 and 8-0 -- sending coach Gene Carlson's team to the Northwest Regional tournament in San Bernardino, Calif., with a perfect 12-0 record.
Following is a capsule look at the magical and historical run of the Big Sky All-Stars, beginning with the team's opening game in San Bernardino:
Friday, Aug. 5
Big Sky 10, Laramie, Wyo., 1
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Cole McKenzie and Ian Leatherberry combined on a no-hitter for Big Sky in their opening game of the Northwest Regional tournament.
McKenzie pitched the first five innings and struck out nine batters, and Leatherberry pitched the sixth inning. Laramie's lone run came in the first inning on two walks, a fielder's choice and a wild pitch.
McKenzie, Connor Kieckbusch and Ben Askelson had two hits apiece for Big Sky. Askelson had two RBIs.
Saturday, Aug. 6
Bend, Ore., 10, Big Sky 6
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Bend, Ore., scored six runs in the fourth inning to hand Big Sky its first loss of the summer and only loss of the Northwest Regional tournament.
Cole McKenzie had three hits and Jet Campbell had two hits for Big Sky in the loss.
Big Sky outhit Oregon 10-6, but hurt itself with four errors in the game.
Monday, Aug. 8
Big Sky 5, Anchorage, Alaska, 4
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- In the game that gave us the first indication that Big Sky was a team of destiny, Gabe Sulser scored the winning run on a wild pitch with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The wild pitch came on the fourth pitch of an intentional walk, with Cole McKenzie at bat, Patrick Zimmer on second base and Sulser on third base.
Big Sky had tied the score at 4-4 earlier in the inning on an RBI double by Ian Leatherberry. Alaska had scored two runs in the top of the sixth to take a 4-3 lead.
McKenzie was 2 for 3 with a double, a home run and two RBIs for Big Sky. Brock MacDonald also had two hits.
The win raised Big Sky's record in the Northwest Regional tournament to 2-1, putting them within one win of clinching a berth in the semifinals.
Wednesday, Aug. 10
Big Sky 9, Lewiston, Idaho 5
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Cole McKenzie was 2 for 3 with a home run and four RBIs as Big Sky finished pool play in the Northwest Regional tournament with a 3-1 record and assured itself of a time slot on national TV.
The 9-5 win over Lewiston clinched a spot in the semifinals, which are televised live on ESPN and ESPN2.
Big Sky joined the 2009 Boulder-Arrowhead team as the only Billings teams to win three games in pool play at the San Bernardino regional. The Boulder-Arrowhead All-Stars of Billings earned the No. 2 seed for the 2009 semifinals, where they lost 9-7 to Salem, Ore.
It also marked the second straight year that a Billings team played a nationally televised game in San Bernardino. Boulder-Arrowhead played in the 2010 semifinals on ESPN2, losing 9-2 to No. 1 seed Auburn, Wash.
Andy Maehl was 2 for 4 with two RBIs.
After Lewiston scored three runs in the fifth inning to cut Big Sky's lead to 6-5, McKenzie hit a three-run homer in the top of the sixth to make it 9-5. The blast hit the Montana flag pole high above the fence in left-center, and the ball caromed all the way back to the shortstop.
Ben Askelson pitched the first three innings for Big Sky. Ian Leatherberry relieved Askelson and worked the next two innings, and Sean Jones pitched the sixth.
Thursday, Aug. 11
Big Sky 6, Lewiston, Idaho, 2
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- The pitching and defense of Cole McKenzie helped Big Sky make history.
McKenzie pitched 5 2/3 dominant innings against Lewiston, Idaho, then moved to shortstop and made a brilliant play -- diving glove-first to tag second base for a force-out -- for the final out of a historic 6-2 win in the semifinals of the Northwest Regional tournament.
The win, which was televised live on ESPN2 beginning at 2 p.m. Mountain time, made Big Sky the first-ever Montana team to reach the championship of the San Bernardino regional. Big Sky earned a date in the championship game against Bend, Ore., which knocked off previously unbeaten Bothell, Wash., 4-3 in the other semifinal game.
McKenzie allowed only three hits, no runs, and pitched around five walks.
But the right-hander began to tire in the sixth, allowing a walk and a single to lead off the inning. Big Sky shortstop Patrick Zimmer snagged consecutive Idaho line drives for a quick two outs, then switched positions with McKenzie.
Back-to-back RBI singles off Zimmer allowed Idaho to score its only two runs of the game, before Riley Way hit the game-ending grounder to McKenzie.
Saturday, Aug. 13
Big Sky 7, Bend, Ore., 1
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Hello, Williamsport!
Cole McKenzie, Patrick Zimmer and the rest of the Big Sky All-Stars made history 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.
In a game televised live on ESPN beginning at 3 p.m. Mountain time, Zimmer pitched five superb innings and held Oregon to four hits. Zimmer did not allow a run until a solo home run in the fifth inning -- long after the game was decided and Big Sky's ticket to the LLWS in Williamsport, Pa., had been punched.
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 a remarkable .684 batting average (13 for 19) and 11 RBIs.
McKenzie was just as dominant on the mound, finishing 2-0 with a 1.69 earned-run average in two appearances in the tournament.
When McKenzie's grand slam 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.
McKenzie had three of Big Sky's seven hits in the game. Zimmer, Askelson, Ian Leatherberry and Jet Campbell each had one hit.
Sean Jones relieved Zimmer to record the final three outs, including a strikeout of Noah Yunker that touched off a wild -- and historic -- celebration on the field.
Thursday, Aug. 28
Big Sky 6, Rapid City, S.D., 4
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Five days after making history by winning the regional, and four days after a cross-country flight from California to Pennsylvania, the Big Sky boys were at it again.
The uniforms changed from Big Sky's regular uniforms of blue-and-white with red trim to the official LLWS Northwest Region uniforms of yellow-and-white with black trim.
But the results remained the same.
A five-run fourth inning lifted Big Sky to a 6-4 win over the Midwest Region champions from Rapid City, S.D., in front of 11,400 fans at Lamade Stadium in the opening round of the 65th annual Little League World Series.
In a game televised live on ESPN beginning at 1 p.m. Mountain time, Big Sky loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batsman in the fourth inning. Connor Kieckbusch then blooped a single to center field to score two runs, and Cole McKenzie followed with an opposite-field laser to the wall in left-center for a two-run double.
On the mound, McKenzie allowed six hits and four earned runs in five innings while striking out three. Three of those runs came off of solo home runs, including two by Erik Petry.
"I just forget about it, really," McKenzie said. "We always stay in the game, no matter what happens. We're a tough team."
His pitching performance was aided by some great defense, including two diving plays by Kieckbusch.
"I felt nervous at first because we're in Williamsport," said Kieckbusch. "I didn't know what to expect, but now I feel more excited than nervous. As the game went on I kind of relaxed."
McKenzie had two of Big Sky's four hits in the game. Kieckbusch and Brock MacDonald each had one hit.
Sean Jones pitched a perfect sixth inning to close out the game.
Sunday, Aug. 21
Big Sky 3, Lafayette, La., 1
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Two up, two down.
Patrick Zimmer pitched five shutout innings and made a heads-up defensive play to end the game as Big Sky won its second straight in the 65th annual Little League World Series, 2-0 over the Southwest Region champions from Lafayette, La., in front of 10,555 fans at Lamade Stadium.
In a game televised live on ABC beginning at noon Mountain time, Ben Askelson hit a two-run double in the third inning - foreshadowing a much bigger clutch hit to come three nights later.
"During my first at bat, I was anxious and took some bad cuts," said Askelson. "But I tried to stay relaxed and just waited for a fastball."
Askelson's RBIs provided all the run support Zimmer needed. He held Lafayette to just four hits and did not allow a runner past second base.
"He just throws strikes and hits his spots," said Big Sky coach Gene Carlson of Zimmer. "That's important at this level."
Big Sky closer Sean Jones allowed one run in the sixth on a hit, an error and a wild pitch. But with a runner on second and two outs, Zimmer sealed the deal.
Lafayette's Ethan Hines hit a hard grounder to Zimmer at third base. He knocked it down with his chest, then looked to first but out of the corner of his eye saw baserunner Cain Castille coming to third. Rather than risk a throw to first, Zimmer simply chased Castille down and tagged him for the final out.
Big Sky had just five hits in the game as Zimmer, Askelson, Cole McKenzie, Brock MacDonald and Ian Leatherberry had one hit apiece.
The win sent Big Sky to the semifinals of the U.S. bracket to face tournament favorite Huntington Beach, Calif.
When asked what the next goal was for the Big Sky team, Leatherberry had an easy answer.
"What's our next goal?" he asked. "To win the next game. We're taking this one pitch at a time."
Wednesday, Aug. 24
Big Sky 1, Huntington Beach, Calif. 0
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Ben there, done that.
Ben Askelson hit what is undoubtedly the most significant home run by a Billings player since Dave McNally's grand slam in the 1970 World Series, leading off the bottom of the seventh with a blast over the left-field wall to lift Big Sky to a stunning 1-0 win over heavily favored Huntington Beach, Calif., in front of 11,950 fans at Lamade Stadium in the U.S. semifinals of the 65th annual Little League World Series.
In a game televised live on ESPN at 6 p.m. Mountain time, Big Sky raised its record to 3-0 in the LLWS and 20-1 overall, and secured a spot in the U.S. championship game.
Remarkably, the run scored on Askelson's walk-off shot was the first one scored in three games against the West Region champions.
Askelson knew what pitch was coming, and he hammered it.
"Right before he threw the pitch I was thinking curveball all the way, and he did (throw the curveball)," Askelson said. "I didn't really know if I'd hit it if he threw a curveball, but I was looking for a curveball."
Prior to Askelson's game-winner, Big Sky had just two hits all night -- one each by Cole McKenzie and Patrick Zimmer -- and had struck out 11 times against Huntington Beach pitchers Nick Pratto and Braydon Salzman.
But McKenzie and Sean Jones matched the California duo. McKenzie pitched the first 5 2/3 innings before reaching the 85-pitch limit, allowing just three hits while striking out four.
Jones worked the final 1 1/3 innings, not allowing a hit but walking three and striking out one.
Big Sky escaped several jams in the game. In the sixth, the bases were loaded with two outs for Huntington Beach catcher Hagen Danner, who hit a laser to left field but right at left fielder Askelson.
"We definitely dodged some bullets," said Big Sky coach Gene Carlson said. "We knew they were a tough team, but these kids never give up."
Saturday, Aug. 27
Huntington Beach, Calif. 11, Big Sky 2
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- In their second meeting in four days, the best Little League team in the world in 2011 proved to be too much for the Big Sky All-Stars.
Huntington Beach, Calif., avenged its 1-0 semifinal loss to Big Sky with a dominating 11-2 win in front of 20,168 fans at Lamade Stadium in the U.S. championship of the 65th annual Little League World Series.
The next day, Huntington Beach edged Japan 2-1 in the world championship game, marking the second time in three years that a team from California reigned as LLWS world champions.
Due to the threat of rain with Hurricane Irene pounding the east coast, the international third-place game was cancelled -- denying Big Sky a chance to face Mexico.
In a U.S. championship game that was televised live on ABC beginning at 1 p.m. Mountain time, Huntington Beach grabbed an early 3-1 lead over Big Sky and then pulled away with two runs in the fourth, two more in the fifth and four in the sixth.
The West Region champions from California banged out 10 hits against Big Sky pitchers Patrick Zimmer, Ben Askelson and Ian Leatherberry.
Cole McKenzie gave the Big Sky boys one final shining moment in the bottom of the sixth inning, launching a home run that landed halfway up the hillside beyond the right-field wall.
The homer capped a phenomenal postseason run for the left-handed hitting McKenzie. After batting .684 (13 for 19) with 11 RBIs in the San Bernardino regional, McKenzie batted .500 (6 for 12) with three RBIs in Williamsport.
McKenzie had two of Big Sky's five hits in the U.S. championship. Ben Askelson, Andy Maehl and Ben Sulser added one hit apiece.
Big Sky's remarkable run ended with a loss. But it also ended with a 20-2 record, a 3-1 record in the World Series and the memory of a semifinal victory over the eventual world champions from California.
"They don't have anything to hang their heads about," Big Sky coach Gene Carlson said of his team. "They had a great run, and they all played exceptionally well and they got beat by a good team. They have nothing to be ashamed of. I'm proud to be their coach."
-- Compiled by Gazette sports editor Mike Zimmer