Mercer Island steadies nerves to reach Little League World Series

Watching his son Brandon pitch for the win during the Aug. 15 NW Regional Little League Championship in San Bernardino, Calif., Bill Lawler's nerves were frayed.

After winning every game in the tournament by the 10-run mercy rule, the Mercer Island 11/12 Little League All-stars had to come from behind to reach the sixth inning with a lead, and now it was all riding on Lawler's pitching and their defense. But Bill, standing amidst 6,000 other fans in Al Houghton Stadium, took comfort from his son's bliss and the love of the game.

"After the bottom of the first inning, he came over to me and said, 'Dad, I'm having the time of my life,'" he said. "This is a dream come true."

After two-strike-outs and a ground-out ended the game, Brandon was buried under a dog-pile of ecstatic teammates, defeating Parrish Little League of Salem, Ore., 8-3 and sending Mercer Island Little League to their first Little League Baseball World Series.

Held Aug. 21-30 in Williamsport, Pa., the international competition for 11 and 12-year-olds has run since 1947 and will be broadcast live on ESPN.

"I don't think we'd ever dreamed that we'd get this far," said Head Coach Steve Stenberg.

"Our district and state tourneys have prepared us well."

Prior to the game Saturday, Mercer Island easily passed their first must-win game of the tournament in the Aug. 13 semifinal against Sitka, Alaska winning 15-1 in four innings. The team now carries a 15-game winning streak into the World Series.

But after crushing their opponents in the regional tournament by a combined score of 62-4 and having already beaten the Oregon team 10-0 earlier, it was something of a shock when Mercer Island gave up three no-hit runs on errors in the first inning to immediately fall behind 3-0. The first time any of the Islanders played in front of thousands in the stands (never mind the millions watching live on ESPN) a slight case of the nerves appeared to overtake the local 11 and 12-year-olds.

The Mercer Island All-stars looked to continue their camera-shy funk as lead-off hitter Josh Stenberg was called out on a double after umpires ruled he failed to touch first base in the first inning.

But Lawler stepped up with two outs and started the Mercer Island rally with single and was later scored on an RBI hit by first baseman Max Hibbert and the inning ended tied up at 3-3.

With pitcher William Mansfield holding off the Oregon batters and great defense preventing stolen bases, a Josh Stenberg single scored Michael Bantle to give the team their first lead of the game. In the fifth, a nervous Oregon relief pitcher walked three MI batters in a row and the scoring continued off a passed ball error. By the end of the inning the Islanders added four more runs to pad the lead.

Stenberg and Coach Brock Mansfield said the keys to the team reaching the World Series were sleep, nutrition, rest and staying hydrated - no easy feat on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert where temperatures hovered around 100 degrees fahrenheit during most tournament games.

"It's harder to pitch because it's so hot," said Lawler.

When the team wasn't practicing or playing, the coaches tried to let the boys spend time with their families with a side trip to Disneyland and a local water park. At the Little League West Headquarters dormitory, Mercer Island Trading pins became a hot commodity and a great way to introduce themselves to other players and fans from around the Northwest U.S. Pitcher Keegan Ogard traded up his MI pin for one featuring Spiderman. Impromptu games of water bottle bowling between the team's 11 bunk-beds also kept things lively, while a team journal kept collectively recorded their favorite memories.

Speaking in an interview before the Regional title game, Lawler — who throws an estimated 74 mile per hour fastball — proudly mentioned his grand-slam home run against Idaho last week as one of his favorite memories and a highlight in the tournament. It's a safe bet that's second favorite now.

"Wish us good luck and hope we make it to Williamsport," he said.

Little League Baseball World Series, Williamsport, Pa. Aug. 21-30 Schedule:

Mercer Island, representing the Northwest Region, will play:

* Friday, Aug. 21, at 10 a.m. PST, vs. Mid-Atlantic (New York vs. New Jersey winner)

* Sunday, Aug. 23, at 9 a.m. PST, vs. Midwest (Urbandale LL, Iowa)

* Monday, Aug. 24, at 1 p.m. PST, vs. Southeast (Warner Robbins American LL, Georgia)

All games will be televised live on ESPN.

If they win their pool, Mercer Island will play in the U.S. semi-finals on Thursday, Aug. 27 at 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. If the team finishes second, they will play in the semifinals on Wednesday, Aug. 26 at 5 p.m. PST. The U.S. Championship game will be played on Saturday, Aug. 29, at 12 noon PST, on ABC. The World Series Championship will be played on Sunday, Aug. 30th, at 12:30 p.m. PST, on ABC.

For a complete schedule, visit the National Little League Website.

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