Those who followed the West Side Little League All-Stars throughout the postseason said the group of boys from Butler County captured the attention of the national television audience and shined a positive light on the region.
The team, made up of Hamilton-area 12-year-olds, lost to Taylor North (Mich.), 5-2, in the championship game of the Little League World Series on Sunday in South Williamsport, Pa.
It was the fifth time the West Side team advanced to the LLWS and the first time it had won at least two games. It was the best performance by an Ohio team in the history of the series, according to the Journal-News.
After the loss Sunday, the players were reunited with their parents for the first time in weeks due to the COVD-19 restrictions. The players rode home from Pennsylvania with their parents on Monday, and a parade is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday.
Seven of the players attend Hamilton City Schools, and five are seventh-graders at Wilson Middle School. A “red carpet return” is set for this morning as the boys — Noah Davidson, Kaleb Harden, Chase Moak, Chance Retherford and Cooper Oden — attend their first day of classes after missing the first two weeks.
Wilson’s first-year principal, Kristin Yordy, said she watched the LLWS and was impressed by how the players performed under such intense pressure.
“These kids are the real deal,” she said. “That’s a testament to the parents, coaches and community.”
Despite the loss in the championship game, Yordy said, the players “are winners in our hearts. They put the little city of Hamilton on the map.”
Fairfield’s Craig and Sandy Keller, whose grandson, Kaleb Harden, plays for West Side, were away from home for several weeks.
“We wouldn’t have missed it,” said Craig Keller, a retired bailiff from Butler County Common Pleas Court. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a grandparent to watch something like this.”
Kaleb is the son of their daughter Kristy and her husband, Steve Harden, who live in Hamilton. Keller coached his grandson when he was younger.
“I am so proud to see him come this far and of the whole team,” Craig Keller said. “They are a scrappy bunch who worked hard. I am not too sure they know how big a deal it was. You don’t at 12. But it is something they will look back and realize.”
Jeff Archiable, communications strategist for the Hamilton Vision Commission, said as the team continued winning after losing to California in the second round, it created “such a point of pride” in the community.
“They played with such passion, effort and class,” he said. “They showed what we expect from our young people in the city. People who may never have heard of Hamilton now have a better idea. Those kids elevated us to a level we may not have got to without them. They represented us in the best way possible. You can’t pay for that type of advertising.”
Josh Davidson, in his third year as president of the non-profit Little League organization, hopes Hamilton’s lengthy and unexpected playoff run spurs more interest in youth baseball and creates sponsorships from local businesses.
He said there used to be 800 players in the program, but that number has steadily decreased to 500. He has heard from fathers who said after their young sons watched the LLWS, they wanted to throw a baseball in the back yard.
“That was great to hear,” said Davidson, whose son is a catcher and pitcher on the team. “We need to get that interest back.”
Davidson said this year’s team “far exceeded” expectations.
“We knew we had a good team,” he said. “Our goal is to always get to Williamsport. Our boys rose to the occasion.”
Typically, the season would have ended after West Side lost to Michigan 9-1 in the regional final, but with no international teams in the 2021 Little League World Series, both the regional champion and regional runner-up advanced to the all-United States tournament.
So two teams from the Great Lakes Regional played for the World Series.
“Thankfully, we got the opportunity to represent Hamilton and show the world what we can do,” Davidson said.
Staff writer Lauren Pack contributed to this report.
BY THE NUMBERS:
4: Elimination games West Side team won.
5: Victories in the 2021 Little League World Series, the most ever for a West Side team.
5: World Series appearances for the West Side All-Stars.
7: Players in the Hamilton City Schools District on the team.
19 : Games Hamilton played in the 2021 All-Star season, going 14-5 with one loss at state, two losses in the regionals, and two losses in the LLWS.
19: State titles in five decades for the West Side All-Stars.
24: Days players were away from home after leaving for the Great Lakes Regionals in Indianapolis on Aug. 6 and returning Aug. 30 after the World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
HOW TO CELEBRATE WEST SIDE LITTLE LEAGUE ALL-STARS
7 p.m. Thursday: The team will gather at the West Side Little League Fields, 1010 Eaton Ave., across from Flub’s at 6:30 p.m. A parade with the players riding in classic cars will leave the fields with a police escort at 7 p.m. and head down to the RiversEdge stage at Marcum Park, where a short program will take place honoring them. There is also an already scheduled movie in the park for that evening in Marcum Park that all are welcome to attend.