It’s a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience for Rancho Santa Margarita team in reaching Little League World Series

The West region team from Rancho Santa Margarita participates in the opening ceremony of the 2017 Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. on Aug. 17.
(Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo)
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Jonas Novek turned 13 on Thursday. Normally birthdays mean a fishing trip or a visit to the beach.

“Anything to do with the water,” his mother Holly says.

But this year those plans were canceled because the Rancho Santa Margarita baseball team Jonas plays for qualified for the Little League World Series and a trip to central Pennsylvania, more than 200 miles from the nearest coast.

It was the best present he could have received.

“What a way to turn into a teenager,” his father Jim said. “Win or lose, it’s just a fabulous experience.”


A lengthy one too. When Rancho opens World Series play Friday against Walla Walla, Wash., it will mark the team’s fifth tournament since late June. For the families, that’s meant canceled vacations, missed time at work and thousands of dollars in unplanned travel.

For the players, it’s likely to mean a late start to the school year.

And their parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s been difficult, but at the same time I feel like we won the lottery,” Holly Novek said. “It really is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.”

Yolanda Lawler, who spent more than $2,000 to follow her son Danny to South Williamsport, agreed.

“For the kids, this is going to be an amazing experience,” she said. “It’s only two months out of an entire life. So I want to enjoy it.”

Summer baseball isn’t new to the Noveks and Lawler. Their sons have played on the same All-Star teams for the last three years, winning a Southern California district title as 10-year-olds and reaching the state championship as 11-year-olds. So even distant relatives have learned to take tournament schedules into consideration when making plans.

Yolanda Lawler’s nephew moved his wedding to the last weekend in August to make sure his aunt could attend. Now she may be there in spirit only since the World Series won’t finish before the nuptials.


“It’s OK. It’s worth it,” Lawler said. “My family understands.”

Rancho streamrolled its opposition this summer, winning 16 consecutive games en route to the West Region championship. In the World Series, it will be matched against seven other regional champions from across the U.S. while the international bracket features eight teams from four other continents.

So for Rancho coach C.J. Ankrum, simply making it into the field is a massive accomplishment

“Everybody here is a champion,” said Ankrum, who won a College World Series title as a player at Cal State Fullerton. “There’s been about 16,000 games and 7,500 teams that started this whole run in June. Pretty cool feat.”

Only one team will leave with the title, though, and that will decided over the next 10 days in tiny South Williamsport, across the Susquehanna River from where Little League baseball took root 78 years ago with three teams and 30 players.

Its membership has grown to more than 2 million players in 80 countries since then, yet its World Series is still played near the bucolic colonial town where the organization was founded.

Clapboard and brick houses with tiny porches and neat lawns, more Norman Rockwell than Frank Lloyd Wright, line the simple two-lane road from the highway to Little League Baseball’s five-field complex — a 72-acre jewel, tucked in a tiny valley, that is part county fair, part miniature spring training complex.


The adjoining main stadiums, Volunteer and Lamade, are spacious yet intimate, with fewer than 3,500 seats — but room for thousands on the surrounding berms — and fields as immaculate as any in the major leagues. Admission is free.

“TV doesn’t do it justice,” Ankrum said. “When you get here and you actually see the hills … it’s just amazing. The grass is so green it looks fake.”

The scenery isn’t the only thing in South Williamsport that harkens to a time gone by. In Rancho’s short stay here, Ankrum’s 13 players have impressed their hosts by lining up after meals to thank each of the cafeteria workers who served them and by starting practice sessions before the coaches arrive.

“I’m just a body here that turns in a lineup to the umpires and that’s it,” Ankrum said.

Humility aside, the kids have become minor celebrities back home in Rancho Santa Margarita, a master planned community in south Orange County. Posters have popped up in neighborhood grocery stores congratulating them, their parents have begun receiving text messages from people they haven’t heard from in years and even the schools have sent out email alerts urging classmates to watch Friday’s game.

“They’re at the highest [point] of their lives, Lawler said. “They’re 12 years old. How do they go back to normal life after this?”

You don’t, Ankrum says. And that’s what makes South Williamsport not a place, but a destination.


“Everybody’s lives have changed and everything’s been put on hold,” he said. “I remember people saying before if you ever were to make it to the Little League World Series, you’re playing almost every day and it’s exhausting. It’s a 2 1/2-, 3-month process.

“And now that we’re here I understand it.”

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11