Fielding a World Championship Team

By , Contributing Writer
October 2009

For most kids, play time in Little League usually wraps up by age 12 in the Majors division. Few leagues have enough fields, umpires, money or parent involvement for 13- to 16-year-olds to continue playing in the Junior or Senior divisions. Most teens who keep playing move on to Select baseball, gaining exposure to college coaches and even professional-league scouts.

For West University Little League, one of the largest leagues in the country, 17 kids who each play high-school baseball, at a total of five different schools, decided 2009 was going to be their year to reunite as Little Leaguers. Longtime baseball buddies and a few new, younger players created a team with the ultimate goal of winning the Little League Senior World Series.

This was no small task. There were more than 65,000 Senior-division players in the world competing for the title. But they did it: District 16, Section 3, State, U.S. Southwest Region and the World Series Championship. They won the whole thing.

For some players, the commitment proved the ultimate juggling act. Pitcher and centerfielder John Williamson committed to play on three Select baseball teams during the same time. He also played for Lamar High School, so he got plenty of baseball.

The WULL Seniors had been working toward a championship celebration their whole lives.

But there was something special about his teammates from West U Little League, some of whom he had played with for years.

Even before he got his parents’ approval, John and his teammates made a deal: if there were scheduling conflicts and competing priorities, playing on the West U Seniors team would come first.

“One of the lessons that the boys learned as a result of this experience is that it takes a lot of hard work, preparation and commitment to succeed at what you want to do in life. It’s important to make commitments and see them all the way through,” said John’s mom, Ann Blackwood.  “When John said he wanted to play for West U, we had to support him.”

And that’s the untold story in this historic run for the gold – parents who may not have been on the field, but who might as well have been. Without them, there would be no win.

Ann once drove John from Houston to Joplin, Missouri, so that he could play for two teams in two states in one day. When the first game finished at noon, he jumped in his mom’s car to travel 7½ hours back to Tyler, Texas, to rejoin the West U team playing for the state title game at 8 p.m. With barely 20 minutes to spare, John arrived and quickly changed uniforms, forgetting to switch his red socks for his green West U ones.

“I’m sore and tired from the long drive back to Tyler, and I’m thinking to myself how is he going to be able to play?” recalled Ann. But John’s bat exploded that night, and he sank three homers, not bad for a kid not known for hitting the long ball. “He has never hit three homeruns in one game,” she said. “That’s when I knew we had made the right decision.”

Is there such a thing as playing too much baseball? Samuel Reid played in 90 games this summer, and he’s one of the youngest players on the Seniors. As a talented utility player, able to play any position, Samuel was on the roster for all but three of the tournament games.

Amy Reid admits it was a lot of baseball, but said she let her son join the team so he could be with positive mentors. “Samuel’s been fortunate to have played in each all-star game for his age group since he was seven. The chemistry and supportiveness on this team was truly unique, and we were so lucky to be a part of it,” she said.

WULL Seniors. Top Row: Manager Trey Cornelius, Michael Resnick, Kevin Roy, Travis Gauntt, Matt Luna, Ryan Farney, Davis Atkins, Luke Cone, Evan Fichter, Stewart Cartwright, Harrison James, Joshua King, coach Will McDaniel, Samuel Reid and coach Scotty Zornes. Kneeling: GM Bob McLamb, John Williamson, Hugh Echols, Andrew Dunlap and Cole Lankford.

With second-baseman Ryan Farney consumed with summer baseball, his mom, Tammy Danberg-Farney, had to keep the motor running for the rest of her family of six. With every game won, keeping the pace going, the plans changing, the schedules revamped and making everyone happy became almost impossible, she said.

Ryan’s brother, Travis, was a member of West U’s 10U state championship team, so his game schedule added to the crunch.

Ultimately, Tammy’s husband, Jeff, decided they would have to divide and conquer. He took the couple’s other three children on vacation while Tammy and Ryan took one wild baseball ride that neither of them will ever forget.

During the sectionals tournament in Seguin, Ryan also traveled to Arkansas to play on a Select team, riding a bus without his mom overnight and logging miles back and forth from one tournament to another. The wear and tear on Ryan was starting to show. Tammy’s husband, Jeff, was having his doubts.

“That’s it. Enough,” he said. But Tammy saw how disappointed Ryan would be to quit. “So,” she said, “we moved forward and just worked through it.”

It’s normal for parents to worry about their kids. But concerns regarding Ryan are heightened because he has diabetes.

Diagnosed at age 11, Ryan has the added burden of managing his blood-sugar levels while playing intense, competitive sports.

“Ryan shows a lot of courage playing ball at this level and managing his diabetes. He tries not to make a big deal about it, but I’m his mom, and I can tell how he’s feeling on the field, good or bad, even when he may not realize he’s not feeling well.”

Mark Cone, outfielder Luke Cone’s dad, was torn between tending to his ob/gyn patients and the lure of being with his son as the team continued to rack up more wins. “Mark was sad he couldn’t be with us in Bangor for the first three games,” remembers wife Lynette. “We were texting back and forth, teary-eyed, running in and out of exam rooms checking the score, running back in to see his patients. He was so choked up.” At the last minute, Mark decided to surprise Luke and fly to Bangor for the championship game. He took one of the last two seats on the only direct flight to Maine and made it in time for the first pitch. “It was priceless,” said Lynette.

Baseball mom Joni Fichter says dreams for a championship started years ago. Her son, shortstop Evan Fichter, played on West U’s 9U district-title team in 2002 and on the Juniors team that won district and sectional and was the state runner-up in 2007. Evan’s dream of winning state and the World Series never subsided. “If we stay together, we can do it” was the team motto.

But this summer proved challenging. Football entered the mix in August, and Evan wasn’t able to join his teammates in Bangor until the championship game. Evan’s family calendar looked more like a page from Google Maps. “We never knew what the lineup was for any game until game day. It always depended on who was going to able to come and play that day,” said Joni. “Every one of the boys on the Seniors team plays high-school baseball, and several play football as well. It’s a very unique situation.

“Bob McLamb, general manager for the Seniors team, spent hours with various families finding solutions to get our players to the game locations so that we could field a team of nine. Bob found creative travel solutions and thought of ways to field a team time and time again. Without him, we never could’ve made it as far as we did,” said Joni.

Also helping, perhaps, were some lucky charms in the bleachers. “When the boys played on the 9U all-star team,” said Ann Blackwood, “we had buttons made for each of the moms, and they had their son’s photo on it. At some point this summer, after we won district, I just happened to find my button of John. So I decided to wear it. They won. And I wore it again. And they won that game, too. After that, some of the other moms started wearing theirs as well. Before we knew it, those buttons became good-luck charms. I was afraid to take mine off.”

Now that the championship has been won, West U Little League is looking to the future. With Fall Ball registrations increasing by 60 percent in the last two years, perhaps future Little Leaguers will find their place in the record books someday. In the meantime, the 2009 champ players – and their parents – are resting. Or at least they should be.