For the Encinitas all-star team — an offensive juggernaut that scored nine runs in a single inning twice earlier in the tournament — a 2-1 loss to Hawaii in the Aug. 10 championship game of the Little League Juniors West Regional tournament was disappointing.
But it doesn’t take a spin doctor to find positives in a summer all-star run that included district, section, sub-division and Southern California championships, and ended just one tiny step short of the Little League World Series.
“If you put it in context, it’s hard to be disappointed when you finish as the second-best team in the entire West Region of the United States,” said Encinitas manager Bob Buscher. “The whole team went out to dinner (the night of the championship game) to celebrate the accomplishments of the boys. They were just normal 13 and 14 year olds goofing around. They were fine.”
The ELL players were far from normal 13 and 14 year olds throughout the summer, including the West Regional tournament, which was contested at Propstra Stadium in Vancouver, Wash. Playing against the champions of other entire states, as well as the NorCal champion, the locals opened the event with three huge victories.
Encinitas kicked off the tournament with a 21-10 win over NorCal (from Walnut Creek), breaking open a close game with nine runs in the top of the sixth.
Offense wasn’t scarce in the next two contests — ELL even pounded out another nine-run inning — but it was pitching that shined in a 9-1 pool-play win over Wyoming and a 10-1 victory over NorCal in the first knockout round.
“We had very strong, very deep pitching that allowed us a great deal of flexibility as we went through the tournaments,” Buscher said. “That was certainly key as we got deeper in this tournament (and deeper in the entire summer run).”
Showing that flexibility Buscher talked about, the locals had four pitchers — E.Q. Workinger, Nick Sando, Nathan Laumann and JP Kraus — combine on a two-hitter against Wyoming and used six to toss a six-hitter against NorCal as Pete Gagne, Sando, Workinger, Laumann, Kraus and Kai Haseyama allowed just one unearned run between them. Later, in the championship contest, it was Gagne putting the team on his shoulders as he threw eight nearly perfect innings.
But before that title matchup, came the, 9-8, seventh-inning comeback win in the semifinal game against Arizona, which everyone associated with Encinitas Little League will remember for a long time.
Arizona actually took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first, coming out of the gates hot with a pair of doubles to lead off the game.
“That top of the first inning was a bit of a surprise,” Buscher said. “But we came back and scored two in the bottom of the first, which I think was huge (especially because they came with) two outs and nobody on.”
Wyley Sharp got the rally started when he got hit by a pitch (he was hit 12 times during the team’s summer tournaments) and Gagne followed with an RBI double to the fence. Following a walk by Jobe Cubillan, Sando drove home Gagne with a base hit.
“Offensively, I thought our approaches at the plate got better and better as we went on,” Buscher explained. “In the semifinal game, we played seven innings and had zero strikeouts, which is remarkable. That put the pressure on the other team and its defense.”
Arizona tried to pull away, taking a 6-2 lead it held into the fifth, but ELL chipped away in the bottom of the frame as Kraus walked and pinch hitter Cody Martinez followed with a single. A single by Sharp brought Kraus home, then Gagne blazed down the line to beat out an attempted double play, allowing Martinez to score.
The teams traded runs for the next few innings, and Encinitas came into its last at-bat (the bottom of the seventh) trailing 8-5. The familiar dugout chant of “Chop down the tree” was never louder.
“The kids were confident,” Buscher said. “You don’t chop down a tree with one big swing, you do it with a lot of swings from a lot of different directions, so ‘chop down the tree’ kind of became our rallying cry ever since the district tournament.”
And chop it down they did as Sharp got the rally started by being hit with another pitch. Things looked bleak after a couple of flyouts, but the next batter, Laumann, wasn’t fazed. After Sharp advanced to second on a balk, Laumann singled him home to cut the Arizona advantage to 8-6.
ELL kept the pressure on as Haseyama walked and Connor Blough loaded the bases when he was hit by a pitch. That brought up Cooper Dulich, who got a couple of strikes on him before what Buscher called “another one of those magical moments.”
Dulich ripped a base hit to left field, knocking in two runs to tie the game. Next up was Kraus and the guy that led the locals with a .507 average, did what he had been doing all summer. His single to left brought home the winning run, sending Encinitas to the championship game, one victory from the Little League World Series.
“There were different types of leaders on this team, some were the quiet hitting leaders that just keep showing up day after day, base hit after base hit,” Buscher said. “JP led the team in hitting. He’s a quiet guy and he just showed up and performed game after game.
“Another kid who did exceedingly well was Cooper Dulich. He hit .448 and was the only kid that did not strike out the whole all-star season. He’s another quiet kid who everybody loved.”
Sharp, one of Encinitas’ vocal leaders, finished just behind Kraus, hitting .488 and leading the squad with his three home runs. Buscher added that Cubillan, a 13-year-old, got more and more comfortable as the summer went on, eventually becoming a guy that fired up the team in the dugout.
“Jobe just kept evolving and maturing and found his path,” Buscher explained. “This group just really came together as a team, and always placed the team success ahead of their individual success, and that was key. That was a great part of this team, they put their own individual egos aside.”
The exciting semifinal win set up a showdown with Hawaii that ended up as a pitchers’ duel. The teams combined for just three runs in 10 innings, but it was ELL that missed the most opportunities, leaving 11 runners on base.
“They made all of the plays, you have to give them credit,” Buscher said. “But we had runners crawling all over the bases the whole game, we just couldn’t get the hit when we needed. It felt like if we could just get one hit, we would have broken the dam.”
After Hawaii finally made the scoreboard operator work by tallying once in the bottom of the fourth, the locals answered back in the fifth inning.
In that frame, Tanner McConlogue singled, Jack Maes walked and Kraus singled to give Encinitas the bases loaded and nobody out. Still, ELL managed to squeeze only one run out of it, Sharp beating out a relay throw to first that allowed Maes to tie the game at 1-1.
With Hawaii’s defense getting the job done, and Gagne throwing lights out for the locals, nobody scored again until the bottom of the 10th. Gagne allowed five hits and walked none, while striking out five in eight innings of work.
“Pete pitched a phenomenal game,” Buscher said. “He kept them off balance by mixing his location and speed. We did so many things right in this game, it was just a shame we couldn’t win it.”
Hawaii ended the longest run any Encinitas Little League team has made in 60 years by scratching across the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the 10th.