Westport To Williamsport: The Back Story

For 30 years, Rob Stone has been a sports legend in Westport.

In 1983, his shot from midfield soared over the Ridgefield soccer goalkeeper’s head. There were just 7 minutes remaining in Staples’ state championship match. Rob’s goal — the only one of his varsity career — gave the Wreckers their 2nd straight state championship.

Now Rob’s son Matt has won a state title too. But he’s gone his dad one better.

Matt is a New England champion. He’s a catcher on the Westport Little League all-star team. Following Saturday’s nail-biting 1-0 win over Lincoln, Rhode Island, Matt and his teammates are headed to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. On Thursday (August 15, 7 p.m., ESPN2), they face South Nashville, Tennessee in game 1 of their double-elimination path to an international title.

That’s a goal Matt’s dad — or, until a couple of weeks ago, probably no one in Westport — ever dreamed of.

Westport Little League all-stars (from left) Max Popkin, Alex Reiner, Matt Stone and Drew Rogers  look relaxed and happy.

Westport Little League all-stars (from left) Max Popkin, Alex Reiner, Matt Stone and Drew Rogers look relaxed and happy.

The story began 2 years ago, when former Division I college pitcher Tim Rogers organized a 10-and-under AAU travel team, the Connecticut Seals. 

The boys quickly began winning. They also won as a Little League District team, which included some (but not all) of the Seals.

A crushing Little League loss came in the District 2 finals. Leading with 2 outs in the bottom of the 6th (and final) inning, they lost on an error on a routine play. Fairfield — the team that pulled out that win — went on to win the state championship.

The loss was “the best thing that could have happened” to the boys, Rob says. He knew it meant something when his son changed his phone’s password to “LLWS2013.”

It stood for “Little League World Series 2013,” Matt told his father. “That’s what we all want.”

Pitcher Harry Azadian sent this photo to his teammates. It shows the Little League stadium in Williamsport -- Westport's goal for the past year.

Pitcher Harry Azadian sent this photo to his teammates. It shows the Little League stadium in Williamsport — Westport’s goal for the past year.

The boys played all fall. During the winter they worked out at an indoor facility, with batting, pitching and fielding instructors.

When the Little League all-star season began this spring, Westport was virtually unchallenged. They went 7-0, outscoring their foes 63-7. Beating Fairfield National twice marked another big step.

In the 1st game of the sectional tournament, they avenged last year’s loss to a Bristol, Connecticut-area team. They faced the same pitcher who beat them previously — but exploded for an 8-0, no-hit victory.

They roared through the sectional and state championships — still undefeated — and headed to the New England tournament in Bristol.

(The final pitch of the New England championship, as shown on ESPN. If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.)

The boys and coaches stayed in a dorm with other teams. Playing 6 games in 10 days, they outscored the opposition 43-8. Their 2 dominant pitchers and stellar defensive work have been as impressive as their prowess at the plate.

Just as important is their spirit. The boys teammates are “all best friends,” Rob says. “They have a great time together — very similar to the feeling of our soccer team 30 years ago. They have a great sense of humor, and are always joking with each other. They’re very cohesive, on and off the field.”

Every single player, Rob says, made “a big-time contribution” during their state and regional championship runs. And “there is unconditional support among the players. When mistakes happen, they own it as a team and pick each other up.”

Rob praises Tim as “an exceptional coach. He is really good with the kids. He knows how to focus them individually and collectively, and has great judgment. All the boys respect him, and have tremendous confidence in him and his decisions.”

That’s true “even when the decision might be negative for the player, like moving him down in the batting order or not starting him.”

Plenty of teams have plenty of talent. This Westport Little League all-star team has chemistry and passion too.

It’s taken them far.

But no matter how much farther they go, they’ve already won 2 things that are more important than any championship:

Confidence in themselves and each other.

And the hearts of everyone in their home town.

Parents and friends cheer the Westport Little League all-stars' bus.

Parents and friends cheer the Westport Little League all-stars’ bus.

12 responses to “Westport To Williamsport: The Back Story

  1. The Westport Library will be showing the first World Series game on the big screen in the McManus Room Thursday night at 7. Thanks for this great story, Dan.

  2. In Rob’s defense, I don’t believe he had an opportunity to win a New England championship.

    Reading this post does illustrate what seems to have been a reality in the youth sports landscape for a long time: the seemingly increasing specialization in and practically year-round dedication to a particular sport in the context of organized teams/practices at a very young age.

    I suppose this has become virtually a necessity to excel in a particular sport today but I have real reservations about whether it’s necessarily a good thing in all respects.

    • Richard Lawrence Stein

      Fred I do agree as a former player, coach, and Staples Conditioning Coach… Many of our best players throughout the years were exceptional multi sport athletes. They brought aspects of other sports and other methods of resilience that were adaptable to all. The former Trumbull Little Leaguer World Series winner Chris Drury excelled at Hockey and became an NHLer… He also by no surprise plays a mean game of golf.. But for the most part when you here stories of great athletes they played many sports not just one. Good luck to these great baseball players… Represent your Family Friends and Town…. And bring back the joy that got you there in the first place. And a trophy if you can.

    • Alfred Popken

      Fred, I agree with your point. As a dad of one of the players I can tell you that almost all on the team have been playing soccer, basketball, hockey or a number of other sports at a recreational or travel level besides baseball. The coaches have actually encouraged that and schedule baseball around other commitments as much as possible. Maybe the success of this team proves your point. The boys are having a great time and will do everything they can to make the town proud!

      • Alfred, I’m very happy to hear that. And best of luck to your son and his teammates in the upcoming games.

  3. Correction, I think!
    If memory serves, Rob did play for an Eastern Regional final in Binghamton but we came up one goal short of going to Nationals back in ’78/’79 (we were roughly the same age then as Matt and his team are now). So for Rob, as I’m sure most of us with kids that partake in sport can attest, to see Matt and his team advance to the promised land of youth sports after coming up short ourselves is all the more sweeter!
    P.S. as the goal keeper sharing time with Pete Brummel on that Binghamton squad, I still feel a twinge of pain to this day thinking how close we came. Thus watching these young men advance to Williamsport is proving to be a bit therapeutic too:) Ah those almost Glory Days!

    • Nothing beats the memories of those days; the friendships, the coaching (thanks Dan!), fun and laughter as well as the magic of our team’s talent. I will never forget that. The boys on the Westport LL team are part of that magic also. The memories will stay forever. Small world: I work for the fire department in Sammamish, WA and watched the 9-7 Westport win at the fire station! Go Matt and Westport!

  4. What a ride this team is on! It is an incredible experience for the players. It’s a dream of every little league player to play in the Little League World Series in Williamsport. They have done a fantastic job.
    Westport plays Thursday, August 15th at 7pm televised on ESPN 2.
    Winner plays Sunday at 2pm televised on ABC. It’s a double elimination format for the first few round so the loser plays on Saturday at 3pm on ABC.

    Go Westport

  5. Kristen Bollert

    In 1969 my dad, Duane Bollert went to the Little League World Series in Williamsport! Take it from me, these boys will be telling their children about this wonderful experience for years and years!

  6. Susan Walton Wynkoop, President Westport Historical Society

    Is there any information on where the bus leaves from on Thursday so that the Town could see them off?