August 24, 1998
(Top row, l-r:) Mike Lentz, manager, Glenn Phillips, coach. (MIddle row, Joe Thornley, Andy Lentz, Darren Pohl, Joey Dunn, Duke Welker, Matt Tuiasosopo. (Bottom row:) Andrew Sego, Bret Bochsler, Corey Nichol Joe Stivala, Kramer Phillips. Not pictured is John Welder, coach and player, Hans Stoltz.
by Steve Sego
After 5 2/3 innings in the Western Region Little League Championship game, The Woodinville West Little League all-star team could look back at 265 outs made over 16 games. It was the lack of a timely 266th, however, that prevented the boys from Woodinville from packing their bags for Williamsport, PA and a historic berth in the Little League World Series.
Playing before nearly ten thousand fans in Al Houghton stadium in San Bernardino and in front of a national television audience estimated in the millions, Woodinville West played a game for the ages. The boys from Cypress, CA were the odds-on-favorites if the ESPN announcers and 90 percent of the fans in attendance were to be believed.
However,Woodinville Manager Mike Lentz and his squad of 12 year olds weren't subscribing to the common wisdom. With one out to go in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Woodinville fans and families in the stands couldn't be blamed for making plans for Pennsylvania.
In his first start in a tournament game, Woodinville pitcher Duke Welker outperformed the highly touted California ace, Matt Swims, striking out nine and scattering five hits over 5 2/3 innings. With a 1-0 lead after Matt Tuiasosopo drove in Hans Stolz in the third inning, Welker looked poised and gained strength and confidence with each out. In the fourth inning, Welker gave up his second hit, a rocket line drive which struck him squarely in the lower back. After a few minutes face down in the dirt of the mound Welker arose and resumed his fine outing, much to the relief of the Woodinville faithful.
Following the sterling double play by Tuiasosopo to Nicol to Bochsler in the bottom of the last inning, Cypress was down to its last out. As the California coach remarked, the next batter set out to show why they play all six innings. SoCal's Bryan Pepperdine topped the Welker offering as intended, but drove the ball off the turf and just beyond the glove of shortstop Tuiasosopo. The next batter dropped a soft line drive into the left center gap, and Pepperdine beat the relay throw home, tying the game. The ESPN cameras followed the emotional reaction of right fielder Stolz, who appeared tearful over the momentum shift after his throw on the play. What the local and national audience didn't know was that Stolz had unknowingly fractured his foot earlier in the game, and after the run and throw was in great pain.
Andy Lentz, who had provided solid defense in center field, replaced Welker on the mound and ended the last inning of regulation play with a strikeout. Woodinville couldn't capitalize with a runner in scoring position in the first extra inning, opening the door for Cypress.
The California heroics were capped by pitcher Matt Swims' two run homer over the left field fence. Woodinville West's best all-star performance ever, one out away from duplicating the regional performance of the renowned 1982 Kirkland team, was over.
The tears began to flow, not just from the brokenhearted 12 year olds but from the proud parents and fans in the bleachers. The boys from Woodinville impressed more than their local fans. The majority of the 12 teams from the region who had fallen out of contention for the championship surrounded the Woodinville rooting section and could be heard cheering for their newly made friends.
"I'm so proud of these boys right now, it's hard to put it into words," remarked Lentz after the heartbreaker. "We started this journey two months ago, working, playing and living together. It's harder for me to accept that I won't be seeing them everyday than it is that we're out. These are the best young men, as students, athletes and sportsman, that I've ever had the privilege to teach and work with."
The all-stars played 16 games in the tournament season, following their regular Little League season that began in March. The 12 man squad dominated their District 8 tourney, winning by a combined 40-4. They sustained their momentum through the state tournament in early August finishing the first two tourneys with a 71-14 margin.
After opening the Western Region Tournament in San Bernardino, Calif. with a 6-0 win over Wyoming, Woodinville knocked out Nevada 5-1. Excepting for the tournament finale, the best game of the competition was the next Washington win, when Tuiasosopo ended a nine inning scoreless tie with Idaho with a grand slam in the tenth. Woodinville then went on to endure their only loss in the double elimination contest, to Northern California, but rebounded on the eve of the championship game to beat NoCal 5-0.
Another noted feature of the local team was the contribution of each member of the squad, which is the exception to most all-star teams. Every boy played and contributed at every level of tournament play.
"We selected these boys because we believed each and every one of them would help make us champions and we were right," Coach John Welker said. "These young men will have memories that will last a lifetime; I know I will. I feel that I've gained 11 new sons."
Coach Glenn Phillips noted that beyond their stellar performance on the diamond, the boys from Woodinville were exceptional ambassadors for our community. "So many players, coaches and fans remarked to me how impressive our young men were, in their behavior on and off the field. As coaches, you like to believe that you had something to do with their growth and maturity, but really there are 12 great families that should take credit."
Phillips' observation was best depicted in the final scene of the championship evening. As the thousands of fans mingled about the outfield area where the players would finally emerge from their post game meeting, it could be assumed that most were waiting to cheer for the locals from Cypress. Yet over the following hour, each and every Woodinville player was obliged to autograph baseballs, posters or whatever their new found California fans could produce. In the end, the Woodinville coaches and players were truly tournament champions.