Before ever leaving Texas, Pearland West hitters faced experienced Little League World Series pitchers.
The opportunity to take batting practice and pick up pointers from members of the 2014 Pearland East team that went 2-2 and was one of the final four U.S. teams alive in last year’s tournament makes Pearland West unique among U.S. teams in this year’s Little League World Series field.
There are many new storylines developing at this year’s Little League Baseball World Series, which is scheduled for Aug. 20-30 at Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums.
“Last year, we had a lot of returning teams, but this year I think Pearland is the one that’s most evident,” said Brian McClintock, the senior director of communications for Little League International.
Pearland has sent a team three times in the last five years, advancing to the U.S. final in 2010.
During the regular-season, the teams in the Houston suburb play against each other within the Pearland Little League. Because of the size of the league, they are split geographically into East and West teams when it comes time to create the all-star rosters for Little League postseason play.
When the Pearland East 12-year-olds were playing in last year’s Little League World Series, the Pearland West 11-year-olds that make up this season’s qualifiers were watching the games on TV together.
“They played with those kids and are friendly with a lot of those kids,” West manager Andrew Solomon said. “I think seeing them last year was incentive.
“There’s a big difference between 11- and 12-year-olds in baseball. Our 11-year-olds on the West were not as good, but they were pretty competitive with the kids who went to the Little League World Series, which I think helped them believe that if they kept working hard they could play at that level.”
Matthew Adams, who won a game, and Landon Donley, who had a save, were the two busiest pitchers on Pearland East at last year’s World Series. They are among the players who have thrown batting practice to Pearland West during the postseason.
Other familiar names and states are represented in Williamsport as well.
Webb City, Mo., is back as the Midwest representative after going 0-3 in the 2002 World Series under the old pool play format.
Sweetwater Valley, the West Regional champion, is from Bonita, Calif. in the San Diego area, just about five miles away from two Chula Vista Little Leagues that were successful in Williamsport. Park View won it all in 2009 and Eastlake won the U.S. title in 2013.
Rhode Island continues its recent success in the New England Region with Cranston West serving as the state’s third team in five years.
On the International side, Kitasuna, Tokyo, returns from last year, representing a league that won it all in 2001 and 2012. Kitasuna lost in the International Final last year.
In general, however, the teams and areas represented in the field are new to the Little League World Series.
And all of the teams will also be new to the competiveness that is likely ahead.
The 16 qualifiers steamrolled competition on the way to Williamsport in uncommon fashion, particularly in the regional championship games, where they combined to beat the second-best teams from their home regions by a total of 179-35.
“Not only were those teams dominant on offense, but their pitching was really good, too,” McClintock said. “It will be interesting to see what catches up here in the series.
“Something will have to give with some teams. I think you’ll see a lot of competitive games.”
Half of the regional finals featured a team scoring at least a dozen runs, and seven games ended in shutouts, including Alex Edmondson’s 12-strikeout, no-hitter for Northwood, S.C. in a 7-0 Southeast Regional championship win over Mechanicsville, National, from Virginia.
Northwood is the first South Carolina team to qualify since 1950 and just the third in the 69-year history of the event.
Although Webb City is here for the second time, it's also just the third appearance ever by a Missouri team. The Midwest champs will find themselves in the spotlight when they play a powerhouse team from Pennsylvania, Red Land, the Mid-Atlantic champions, in the last of eight first-round games, Friday night at 8 EDT.
“It’s going to be a more exciting atmosphere, there’s going to be more people here,” McClintock said. “In 2011, when Keystone was here from just a half hour away, we set attendance records over the tournament.”
With the buzz around eventual Sports Illustrated covergirl Mo’ne Davis and the Taney team from Philadelphia last year, those records were approached.
Red Land, from a little more than 100 miles away in the York area, is closer to Williamsport than Philadelphia. Its team has generated excitement while going 16-0 by a combined margin of 244-13.
Cole Wagner, a 5-foot-10 lefty who struck out eight while throwing a 12-0 shutout of Jackson, N.J., in the region final, is also a big part of a lineup that has produced five home runs per game. He is the son of Bret Wagner, a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1994 who went on to pitch in the minor leagues for four seasons. Clean-up hitter Ethan Phillips went 7-for-10 with two doubles, two homers and 11 RBIs in three Mid-Atlantic Region games.
Pearland West has put up similarly imposing numbers. It arrives with a 14-0 record by a run margin of 186-20, even though it had to battle through a pair of one-run games against Lufkin in the Texas East tournament. Jarrett Tadlock and Zack Mack, the third and fourth hitters, each batted over .600 with two homers in four Southwest games.
The Southwest champions play in the first U.S. game Thursday at 3 p.m. against Northwest champion Wilshire-Riverside, just the fourth team to ever represent Oregon.
The other U.S. team is Bowling Green Eastern, which gave Kentucky its eighth qualifier with a 13-0, four-inning romp over Coon Rapids, Minn. in the Great Lakes final, completing a four-game run through the elimination bracket in which it scored 49 runs.
Kitasuna made it back by outscoring four opponents 44-4 in the Japan Regional, which has produced six world champions since 1999.
The rest of the international field is: Tung Yuan, Chinese Taipei, representing Asia-Pacific; Cronulla, representing Australia; White Rock South Surrey, British Columbia, representing Canada; Los Bravos de Pontezuela, Dominican Republic, representing Caribbean; AVRS Secondary School Little League, Uganda, representing Europe-Africa; Cardenales, Venezuela, representing Latin American; and Seguro Social, respresenting Mexico.
The teams from Canada and Uganda each won their regional finals, 16-0.