When Anthony Scalzo took the batter’s box against Bainbridge’s Trent Schulte during the sixth inning of the 3A baseball state semifinal May 29, Steve Stenberg came down with a serious case of déjà vu.
Stenberg was Scalzo’s Mercer Island 11/12 Little League All-Stars team manager in 2009, a group that earned Mercer Island’s first-ever trip to the Little League World Series (LLWS). He watched an 11-year-old Scalzo go up against a Bainbridge team with Schulte starting on the mound in the state tournament semifinals. Schulte was removed from that game due to reaching his Little League-imposed 85-pitch limit, and shortly after in the sixth inning, Scalzo blasted a walk-off double to win the game 4-3.
Six years later at Husky Ballpark, here they were again. Only this time, Scalzo swung for a three-RBI triple to save the Islanders from a late three-run deficit, tying the game in what would be an 11-6 Islander win.
“Against the same [starting] pitcher in the same inning, he hit his triple,” Stenberg said. “I kept thinking, ‘this can’t be happening, it’s way too coincidental.’ But we’re thankful it did.”
This year’s Mercer Island state title-winning team had five members of Stenberg’s 2009 All-Star squad on its state tournament roster, which included Scalzo, Michael Bantle, Brandon Lawler, pitcher Will Mansfield and Josh Stenberg.
Two different teams, but several of the same suspects doing the same things on the baseball diamond six years apart.
“The main thing I remembered was just how close I got with all the teammates on the team,” Josh Stenberg said of the 2009 experience. “We spent so much time together that we basically became brothers by the end of the run in August. And we were playing baseball, something we all love, and we’re hanging out all the time together. It was just the perfect mix for all of us.”
The 2009 team was young in more ways than one, which made its LLWS run all the more remarkable. Mercer Island’s Little League charter, now in its 10th season this year, had formed in 2006 behind efforts from community members partnering with the Island’s Boys & Girls Club. Brian Emanuels served as acting president for Mercer Island Little League, whom Steve Stenberg credited for leading the charge to get the Island’s league going, along with the efforts of Kurt Dammeier. Brock Mansfield helped develop the travel and select teams, and assisted Stenberg with the 2009 11/12 All-Stars.
Now, instead of parting ways to the Thunderbird Little League or the Bellevue Pony League, young Islanders could stay together and play baseball.
“It made it much, much easier for Mercer Island families to have a more intense baseball experience on the Island,” Stenberg said. “No one wants to leave the Island if they don’t have to. They want to satisfy their baseball needs and desires close to home against your friends. There’s nothing better than that.”
Stenberg said the 2009 team consisted of 11 members crossing over three grade levels. The coaches knew they had really talented players in the older grades, and the goal was to put the strongest team together possible to take a shot at Eastlake for the district title.
“When we did topple Eastlake and won the [district] championship, Brock Mansfield and I took on the bonus baseball motto, ‘Everything here on out is just gravy, now just go have fun,’” Stenberg said.
In the state tournament, Mercer Island saw its winner’s bracket final against Little League heavyweights Pasco, deadlocked 7-7 in extra innings, interrupted by the sprinkler system dousing the field and causing a ten-minute stoppage in play. Mercer Island went on to win 8-7. But even in Little League, Mercer Island needed to win it twice to secure the state title, beating Pasco in the winner’s bracket final and the corresponding tournament championship game, 3-2.
The 2009 team took a 15-game winning streak into the LLWS, capped with an 8-3 win over a team from Salem, Ore. in the regional championships in San Bernadino, Calif. Mercer Island overcame a three-run deficit in that game, taking its first lead off a Josh Stenberg RBI single that brought home Michael Bantle. Starting pitcher Will Mansfield kept the Salem batters in check after a shaky first inning, and Lawler delivered in a relief appearance from the mound to preserve the win.
Though Mercer Island wasn’t as successful at the LLWS in Williamsport, Pa., going 0-3 against teams from Staten Island, Georgia and Iowa, the experience may have left an indelible mark on their collective competitive drive.
“The thing that impressed me the most was these kids have this mindset, they’re so gritty, which was just magnified [in the high school state tournament],” Brock Mansfield said. “The big difference at the high school level is they’re used to winning and used to pressure. These kids come in with this attitude and they’re like, ‘Of course we’re going to win.’”
What made the semifinal against Bainbridge even more special for Steve Stenberg was a lineup change made by Islander coach Dominic Woody. Woody tweaked the batting order heading into the semifinals, with four of Mercer Island’s “core five” from 2009 batting consecutively in the 3-6 spots.
Bantle, Lawler, Stenberg and Scalzo collectively went 9-14 at the plate, accumulating five RBI and eight runs scored. Will Mansfield was the winning pitcher in Mercer Island’s final two games.
“What was so fun was seeing so many kids from 2009 perform the exact same way they did in 2009 when the game was on the line,” Brock Mansfield said. “How many times have I seen Michael Bantle hit a two-strike pitch into right field, the exact same hitting he did when he was 10- and 12-years-old? How many times have I seen Josh Stenberg come up big defensively and offensively? It was like a throwback. To see Scalzo hit that double and then hit the bases-loaded triple against the same [starting] pitcher gave me goosebumps.”
In the state championship game against Shorewood, more of that gritty mentality showed. After seeing the potential walk-off walk overturned in the bottom of the eighth inning, Will Mansfield said he felt the need to be out on the mound for his team. Even though he only expected to be available for one or two innings, Mansfield knew he developed a different kind of trust with his teammates when he was on the mound.
“It’s kind of like that calming effect,” he said. “Once that happened, I was like ‘I have to step up and keep the team focused here.’ If I go out there and keep throwing zeros on the scoreboard, then they’ll stay confident and we’ll win this game.”
Mansfield would go five and 2/3 innings, allowing only one hit while striking out two in the Islanders’ 1-0 victory. Neither team committed an error in 13 innings of play.
“What makes me more proud than anything is to see how the kids handle adversity and handle success,” Stenberg said. “I was blown away by the fact that they were able to pull themselves back together, go back into the ninth inning and shut the team down defensively. That’s unheard of. To play errorless baseball for thirteen innings, that’s unheard of.”
Lawler understands the comparison between the 2009 and 2015 teams for their respective achievements. While both are special, he said a different level of maturity and awareness separate the two.
“Probably the main difference between the Little League World Series and the state tournament is back then, we didn’t really know how big that was,” Lawler said. “We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were just playing and didn’t realize what was going on, just winning and dog piling on fields and going crazy. [The state tournament] was just a lot more real for me. The LLWS back then seemed so improbable, but this was like something we definitely could do. We definitely had the talent, there was just that main difference of knowing and really understanding how big it was in the moment.
“All of us, all of those teammates that were on that team, we’ve been through so much together,” Lawler said. “For me as a senior, having the last chance to play with Josh and play with a lot of those guys, it was incredible. It was a perfect way to go out. After all those years of hard work, it was all worth it.”