SAN BERNARDINO — After the Ocean View Little League Majors All-Star team defeated Napa National in Friday's semifinals of the Little League Baseball Western Region tournament in San Bernardino, Manager Tod Minato said that Williamsport, Pa., home to the Little League World Series, felt as though it was "so far away" and a "long road" to get there.
So true, but at that moment, only one more victory stood between Ocean View reaching Little League Baseball utopia.
In Sunday's regional championship game at Al Houghton Stadium, Ocean View held a one-run lead after three innings against Waipio, but the champions from Hawaii scored four runs in the top of the fourth and went on to earn a 4-1 victory to punch its ticket to Williamsport.
Waipio, which won the regional two years ago and then went on to win the World Series title, will take on Northern Little League of Columbus, Ga., in a first-round World Series game Saturday.
Ocean View, which defeated Hawaii, 2-1, in pool play Aug. 7, played 21 All-Star games and went 17-4 in a tremendous postseason run.
The locals went 4-2 in the regional.
It was the league's first trip to the Western Region championship game since the 2000 Ocean View team finished runner-up to the title.
"I think it was a fantastic run," Minato said. "The players, and all those who support Ocean View Little League, can be proud of what was accomplished for a long time."
Moments after Sunday's game, played before a standing-room-only crowd estimated at 12,000, Minato and Coach Sean Pouelsen led the Ocean View players from their third-base dugout toward the Waipio side of the field to applaud the Waipio fans — largely outnumbered — who returned the affection. It was custom for the Ocean View team to salute the opposition and their fans throughout the postseason, Minato said.
"In the pregame talk, I told the kids, 'let's make a pact,'" he said.
"We all agreed that we had gotten much further than we ever anticipated and that we all would be proud of what we accomplished, no matter the outcome of the game. I told them if they agreed with that, to extend their hand in the huddle before we broke away. Each one of them said, 'yes,' " and put their hand on the pile."
The championship final, televised live by ESPN — Minato said he turned down an offer to be "miked" by ESPN during tournament play, saying what he had to say to his players was "private, like a family type of situation" — pitted two outstanding teams possessing top-notch pitching and defense, not to mention some clutch hitting.
Ocean View sent Logan Pouelsen to the mound, but Pouelsen had to leave the game after reaching his pitch count limit with two out in the top of the fourth, after Waipio took a 4-1 lead. He gave way to Hagen Danner, who started the game behind the plate. Waipio answered with ace Noah Shackles, who went the distance. The right-hander struck out nine and allowed four hits.
In six tournament games, Waipio surrendered just nine runs in six games. The one run was the lowest output in the tournament for Ocean View.
"If you can throw a complete game against us on 83 pitches…he did a great job on us," Minato said of Shackles.
Although Waipio threatened with runners in scoring position in the second inning and loading the bases in the third — only to come away empty on both counts — it was Ocean View that struck first.
With one out in the bottom of the third, No. 9 hitter Michael Gates drilled a 1-2 pitch over the fence.
Ocean View's first hit of the game produced its only lead.
Waipio retaliated immediately, getting all four of its runs in the fourth. With runners at first and third with one out, Waipio scored the tying run on an infield throwing error on a double-play attempt. Waipio scored the winning run when a Ty DeSa one-hopper took an awkward bounce and landed just inside the third base foul line. The ball glanced off the glove of Armando Duarte and went into left field, allowing Matthew Campos to score from third.
With two out and runners at first and second, Shiloh Baniaga sent a deep fly ball to the corner in right field that scored Kaho'ea Akau and DeSa to increase the lead to 4-1.
Ocean View threatened one final time in the bottom of the sixth when Danner reached base on an infield error and Steven Gingery singled to right field. With two out and the tying run at the plate, Hunter Jackson sent a grounder toward second base and hustled down the base path, but was beat out by Akau's throw on a close play at first.
The final out touched off a wild celebration that exploded out of the Waipio dugout.
"I wasn't nervous at all, even after that home run," said Shackles, who finished the regional 2-0.
"Ocean View's a very good team. I knew they earned that run on that home run. It would have bugged me had they scored on an error. But they earned it. It was a great hit.
"I can't even describe how this feels right now. It's going to be a lot of fun in Williamsport."
Waipio Manager Brian Yoshii had nothing but praise for Ocean View.
"They are an awesome team," he said. "We knew it would be a battle, and it was a great game."
Yoshii then stopped for a moment and took a look at his team as it took in well-wishes from its fans.
"For them," he said, pointing to his players, "this is their dream. It's for them."
In addition to Gates' home run and Gingery's single, Pouelsen singled in the third inning and Danner singled in the fourth for Ocean View.
Ocean View's postseason prowess included winning the District 62, Section 10 and Southern California Region championships.
"It takes talent for a team to do what this group of kids did," Minato said.
"That's first and foremost. A team can't go that far into a season without talent and this was a group of very talented players. Second, the kids had a real willingness to be out there in terms of effort. They really bought into what Sean (Pouelsen) and I were selling them, and that was that this experience was more about life lessons than baseball.
"At the end of the game, a few of our players had their heads down but I told them, 'remember our pact.' They did, and as endings go, we went out with a lot of dignity."
Several minutes after the game, the Ocean View players, carrying their game bags along with a lifetime of memories, walked in single-file fashion from their third-base dugout, through left and center field, and exited Al Houghton Stadium for the final time.
And they did so with heads held high.
The 2010 Ocean View Little League 12-year-old All-Stars are: Hagen Danner, Armando Duarte, Michael Gates, Steven Gingery, Michael Green, Corey Hawk, Hunter Jackson, Chad Minato, Logan Pouelsen, Nick Pratto, Hunter Simmons and Luke Williams. The team is managed by Tod Minato and Coach Sean Pouelsen.