Six years ago, 11 6th and 7th grade baseball players mesmerized Westport.
The youngsters battled their way through through local, state and regional competition. They won in blowouts, and in nail-biting fashion.
They kept winning — all the way to the Little League World Series finals, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
The dream ended in the championship game — on national TV — but they returned home to a heroes’ welcome.
It was a fantastic run. Unfortunately, too many times in youth sports, success at an early age is a recipe for disaster later on.
All that attention turns their heads. Other kids catch up — and surpass them. They discover other interests. Or they burn out.
Thankfully, that is definitely not the case here.
Six years later, the Westport Little League All-Stars have become stars of the Staples High School baseball team.
Two years ago, they won the state LL (extra large schools) championship. This year, they’re battling for it again.
It’s a bittersweet time for them — and their parents. Four of the 11 players are seniors (the other 7 graduated last year). They’ve been together since they were 9 years old.
Soon — hopefully later rather than sooner, but in a single-elimination tournament, you never know — they will play their last game together.
It’s an especially emotional time for Tim Rogers. He was their head coach, from those 9-year-old days through Williamsport, then beyond in travel baseball.
He’s watched with pride — and helped immensely — as his son Drew, and fellow seniors Harry Azadian, Chad Knight, Charlie Roof, have grown as baseball players.
And grown up, from boys into young men.
Rogers is proud of many things. One is that they handled that Little League World Series experience so well. Despite the demands of the sport — and the media — they were still kids. They met other players from around the world. They hung out, and made friends.
Then they took that experience, and brought it into the rest of their lives far beyond Williamsport.
Rogers is also proud that they have continued to play — and love — baseball. No one burned out. No one quit. No one peaked as a 12-year-old.
He is proud that 2 years ago — when other All-Stars, including Matt Stone, Tatin Llamas, Max Popken, Chris Drbal and Alex Reiner were still playing together — Staples beat 4-time defending state champion Amity High 5-1, in the LL title game.
All along, Rogers says, “they’ve found a way to win. They’re deep as a team, but that winning mentality is something intangible.”
He’s proud that they have become leaders. His son, Azadian and Knight are captains of this year’s Wreckers. They’re passing their competitiveness and values on to the younger players.
Rogers is proud that the Little League World Series finalists remained poised and humble. Ever since Williamsport, whenever they’re interviewed, they’ve put baseball in perspective.
Rogers may be proudest though that the longtime teammates still love being together. Through all their success — and occasional disappointments — they’ve remained close friends.
Staples’ Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference is a brutal league. The Wreckers have had to fight for what they’ve gotten, every year.
This spring, they finished with the best record. On Wednesday night they avenged a regular season defeat to Fairfield Ludlowe by winning the FCIAC championship in storybook fashion.
Jake D’Amico — one of those younger players — drove in the winning run. On a 3-2 pitch. With 2 outs. In the bottom of the last inning.
Knight pitched a complete game, giving up only 2 hits and striking out 5.
The final quest — the state championship — starts Tuesday.
Graduations are always wonderful, and hard. For Rogers — who just turned 50, and saw his oldest son graduate from college — watching Drew and his baseball teammates march down the aisle, and out of high school, will be “one more step in my process,” he laughs.
So right now, he — and all the other parents, who have been together through so much and so long — are hoping the season lasts as long as it can.
So do the boys of so many summers.