There are 325 local Little League programs in Southern California and, in the Juniors division, Encinitas Little League stands atop them all.
After earning the SoCal title by defeating Dos Pueblos in the three-game Division III championship series July 30 (which followed District 31, Section 6 and D-III South Subdivision crowns), ELL is currently playing in the Western Regional tournament in Vancouver, Wash.
If the locals emerge as champs from the 13-team event, which ends Aug. 10, they are off to the Little League Juniors World Series in Michigan the following week.
The regional tourney began Aug. 3 with each of the teams — Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, NorCal (Walnut Creek) and an all-star host squad from Vancouver — competing in a pair of pool-play games. Encinitas opened against Walnut Creek on Aug. 3. The top 10 seeds after pool play begin a single-elimination tournament on Aug. 5
Following a sendoff party at Oggi’s Pizza and Brewing Company on July 31, the Encinitas players and coaches headed to Washington the next day.
“(The party) was really nice,” said ELL coach Bob Buscher. “The kids were treated like celebrities and (a TV news station) was there to interview them. We have really good community support.
“(Now) we’ll have a couple of days to travel and bond together. Our challenge (in Vancouver) is to keep the kids focused while still playing good baseball.”
Speaking of good baseball, that’s exactly what Encinitas continued to play in the three-game series against Dos Pueblos in Manhattan Beach. The locals needed to be sharp as DPLL, the North Sub-division champ, was a worthy opponent.
“Those guys did a lot of things well,” Buscher said. “Their pitching was strong in the first two games and they were fundamentally solid. They were very patient at the plate, made you throw strikes, they didn’t swing at bad pitches and they put the ball in play and made you make plays.
“The first two games were back-and-forth close games. It was good, exciting baseball.”
When the series opener got underway on July 28, Dos Pueblos immediately showed its efficient playing style, using a double, sacrifice bunt and sac fly to take a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning.
ELL answered right back in the bottom half when Pete Gagne ripped a single to bring home JP Kraus and EQ Workinger. The 2-1 Encinitas advantage lasted until the third inning, when DPLL used a couple of unearned runs to go ahead 3-2.
But in the bottom of the fourth, the locals turned to some of their lesser-known players to get the runs that would eventually win the game. Cody Martinez got thing started with a single and Nathan Laumann — used mostly as a pitcher by ELL — reached base on an error. Tanner McConlougue followed with an artful squeeze bunt, bringing home pinch runner Jack Maes to tie the game at 3-3.
“Tanner’s squeeze bunt was definitely the play of the game,” Buscher said. “That rally was generated and conducted by kids that haven’t been getting as much playing time. It was a great inning for us.”
The next batter, Kraus, smacked a double and Laumann motored home to score the eventual winning run in the 4-3 decision. On the hill for Encinitas, Workinger went five innings and allowed just one earned run.
ELL opened Game 2 of the series (on July 29) with a quick run in the bottom of the first inning, but helped Dos Pueblos take a 4-1 lead by walking four batters in a four-run top of the second. DPLL would have scored even more if not for an exceptional play from Workinger, who threw a dart from left field and nailed a runner at the plate to end the inning.
Encinitas battled back to tie the score in the bottom of the third as Cooper Dulich led off with a single and Kraus reached base on an error. After Workinger moved the runners to second and third, Wyley Sharp’s sac fly knocked in one run.
Jobe Cubillian smacked a double to right, scoring Kraus, then went to third on a balk. He came home on Gagne’s infield single, deadlocking the game at 4-4.
Dos Pueblos, however, was playing to stay alive, and did just that with a run in the fifth inning that made it 5-4, a score which held through the end of the contest. That tally was another example of DPLL playing the game the right way as a batter doubled, went to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly.
“They just did all the little things right,” Buscher said.
That outcome set up a winner-take-all Game 3 on July 30 and ELL made no mistake about which was the better team, capturing the Southern California championship with a 10-0 victory.
With Gagne tossing five shutout innings, and allowing just two hits, Encinitas led the whole way after five walks and a hit batter led to five runs in the bottom of the first. In that frame, Kai Haseyama had a sac fly and Connor Blough worked a walk that forced home the fourth run.
“They kind of helped us out a little bit there,” Buscher explained. “We had two hits in that inning and scored five runs.”
The locals added two runs in the fourth inning, then triggered the mercy rule by tallying three more times in the fifth. In that final rally, Sean Alvarez singled and scored the first run and Cubillian ended the game with a smash over the right fielder’s head.
That sent Encinitas to the regional tourney, and put it one step away from the World Series. Should ELL qualify for the Aug. 14 World Series in Taylor, Michigan, it will be one of five U.S. regional winners who will take on one team each from Asia-Pacific, Australia, Canada, Europe-Africa, Latin America and Mexico.