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Laguna Beach Little League all-star team making history

Braylon Vellmure makes a quick throw during the Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate All-Stars practice on Tuesday.
Braylon Vellmure makes a quick throw to third base during the Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate All-Stars practice at Riddle Field on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

This is the 70th anniversary season of Laguna Beach Little League, and what a great season it is.

Usually by mid-July, it’s time for summer vacations or days at the beach. But something is different about this year’s Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate Division All-Star team. It continues rewriting the history books, one big swing or blazing fastball at a time.

Laguna Beach’s group of 13-year-olds plays for the Southern California Intermediate Division title at 6 p.m. Thursday in San Diego. Laguna will play the winner of Wednesday night’s loser’s bracket game between Apple Valley and Claremont American at the Rancho Penasquitos Little League field, with the title on the line.

Even if the Laguna Beach Intermediate team loses Thursday, it will have another chance Friday night. That’s what being in the winner’s bracket gets you.

Players gather before drills during Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate All-Stars practice at Riddle Field on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach’s All-Stars have already gotten further than any team in league history, after winning the District 55 and Section 10 titles. They are undefeated in All-Stars play.

If they win this tournament, the West Region tournament is next, beginning July 20 in Nogales, Ariz. A win there would take Laguna Beach all the way to the Little League Intermediate Division World Series, which starts July 31 in Livermore.

“A lot of really developed, baseball-minded kids elected to come back and play their last year of Little League,” Laguna Beach Manager Preston Thomson said during a practice Tuesday night at Riddle Field. “I think that probably had a lot to do with missing the year for COVID [in 2020], and having a restricted year the second year of COVID. I think that really added to kids’ desire to come out here with their friends and have one last year of Little League. A lot of these kids would have probably historically left after that 12-year-old season … [but] we’ve got talented kids, super-supportive families and great coaches.”

Thomson said the Intermediate Division (also known as the 50/70 Division) in Laguna Beach Little League had three teams this year. Each was very successful against teams from other cities in the regular season.

Will Kimball and Wyatt Bogdan, from left, take their positions at third base during practice on Tuesday.
Will Kimball and Wyatt Bogdan, from left, take their positions at third base during the Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate All-Stars practice at Riddle Field on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

When All-Stars came, the kids banded together and have formed something special. Miles Barnett and Jake Martin have been effective starting pitchers in the Southern California tournament for Laguna Beach, and also play shortstop and outfield, respectively.

Middle reliever Declan Jenal, who also plays first base, has not been scored upon in at least 16 innings of All-Stars competition, Thomson said.

“I don’t know if he’s even given up many hits,” Thomson said. “He’s a lefty that throws a nasty curveball, and to get that at this age is unique.”

Wyatt Bogdan, who also plays third base, has been “unhittable” as the team’s closer, Thomson said. Bogdan is also one of the team’s top power threats, along with catcher Darius Morales.

Morales, who is on the team with his twin brother Achilles, launched 20 home runs in the regular season and has two more in All-Stars competition.

Aaron Crosby scoops up an infield hit during the Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate All-Stars practice on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“It feels great,” Darius Morales said. “The group of guys that we have has a really good bond, really good team synergy. To be able to even get this far, to get a banner, let alone get where we’re at, I can’t complain at all.”

Other contributors for the stacked Laguna Beach squad include second baseman/pitcher Aaron Crosby, first baseman/pitcher Jack Hurst, outfielders Kai Kaiser and Will Kimball, shortstop/outfielder Brady Stringham, second baseman/outfielder Beckett Thomson, and outfielders Braylon Vellmure and Justin Yi.

Rob Engstrom and Brent Stringham are the team’s assistant coaches, with Engstrom as the guy largely in charge during the team’s three-hour, Major League-style practices.

Coach Rob Engstrom runs drills as the Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate All-Stars practice on Tuesday at Riddle Field.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach had one of its closest games so far on Tuesday night, a 3-1 victory over Apple Valley. But Kimball said that nobody really panicked.

“We’ve just got kids that are talented and gifted,” he said. “We trust in our teammates, and trust that we’ll all do our job. It’s just another game. Obviously, it gets close or down to the wire, but if we all do our job then we’ll come out with a win, hopefully.”

Bogdan said he took last year off from Little League to focus on travel ball, but he’s happy he rejoined his friends for one more ride.

“I didn’t really think that we’d come this far, because no other team has really done it before,” he said. “I think the main reason is because we play as a team very well. We’ve got good players, and as a team we’ve got lots of chemistry.”

Preston Thomson said the players are more like brothers than friends. He often finds many of them at his house, hanging out.

Will Kimball takes a throw from coach Rob Engstrom during Tuesday's practice.
Will Kimball takes a throw from coach Rob Engstrom during Tuesday’s Laguna Beach Little League Intermediate All-Stars practice.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Part of that is coming from a small community. Thomson said he coached half of the players on this current Intermediate Division team in Tee Ball when they were just 5 years old, and many of them are also multisport athletes.

He said the players are hoping for the opportunity to keep playing at the West Regionals — even if that means soaring temperatures in Arizona.

“I don’t know how much desire a lot of people have to go to Arizona in the middle of July,” he said with a laugh. “It’s down on the border of Arizona [and Mexico] in the hot part … They’re talking about it without trying to jinx it. But they’re really different in that they’re grounded kids and they’re realists. They’re really just one game at a time, one inning at a time.”

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