Eastbank Little League still basking in glory of World Series triumph
It’s been almost a month since the River Ridge-based Eastbank team won the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Penn. but the euphoria of their victory over Curacao in the international finals still hasn’t worn off.
The team has been the toast of the New Orleans area, as well as the entire state of Louisiana, as its accomplishment has been recognized at all sorts of public events. The players and coaches have had little time for their achievement to really sink in.
To put the LLWS championship into perspective, it’s similar to winning the World Soccer Cup or the World Baseball Classic, where teams from across the globe compete for a title. The popularity of the 72-year-old competition rivals those other events, especially since it is held annually. While the participants of the LLWS are much younger, they are no less competitive than their professional counterparts.
The Eastbank team of 12-year-olds went on a winning streak that included a sweep of the state tournament in Lafayette, LA and the regional competition in Waco, TX. Representing the Southwest Region, they became the first team from the Greater New Orleans area to reach Williamsport.
After losing its first game in the United State bracket of the World Series to Hawaii, they rebounded by winning six games in eight days (including a win against Hawaii) to become the first team from Louisiana to claim the overall title. They were the first team since 2000 to lose its first game in the tournament and then capture the championship. Eastbank was the last team standing out of over 7,000 across the world that played Little League Baseball this year.
Kevin Johnson, one of the Eastbank coaches, said, “Even now, I still haven’t fully processed what this team’s done. It’s been all so surreal. It’s like I had walked on the moon.” The 44-year-old, who’s been coaching since he was 19, added. “I’ve followed the Little League World Series since I was a little kid, so I was aware of the magnitude of the competition.”
Johnson, who assisted head coach Scott Frazier along with Don Abadie, was impressed by the baseball IQ of the team. “Their capabilities had already been well-honed by their travel ball coaches. Plus, we couldn’t have asked for a better attitude by the kids. We just had to prepare them for the grind of tournament play.” Johnson said the coaches’ mantra for the team became “don’t take anything for granted; don’t leave anything on the field.” Apparently, that advice worked well for the youngsters who bounced back from their loss in the first game.
Since the players already had the requisite athletic skills, he said the coaching staff emphasized the mental side of the game. He credits Frazier with instilling in the players what was termed PMA—positive mental attitude. When play got tough for the team, the boys were reminded to forget about the last bad pitch or the last misplay. For example, in one of the televised games, Frazier was heard admonishing a struggling pitcher to correct his body language and focus only on the next pitch.
The team displayed a good combination of hitting and pitching throughout the tournament. Reece Roussel set a LLWS record with 17 hits during the tournament, while Marshall Louque pitched a no-hitter against the Virginia-based Southeast Region team. Ethan Prather shut down a talented Curacao squad on only two hits in the finals. Johnson was complimentary of all the players, saying one of their key success factors was that each them knew his role. The substitutes knew they could count on seeing action, and they also delivered in key situations. With pitch counts determining how long pitchers could stay in a game, Johnson said Eastbank had the advantage of having many players who had pitched prior to the World Series and thus they were able to share the workload.
Baseball doesn’t get very much press in the New Orleans area. But the Eastbank team was talk of the town for two weeks during the tournament. Furthermore, their LLWS title just might be the biggest sports story of the year in Louisiana, unless perhaps LSU beats Alabama in football or the Saints rebound from Drew Brees’s injury to win the Super Bowl.
The Eastbank team has continued to be the center of attention at many venues since their return home. For the past few weeks, it’s been a whirlwind period for the team. They were treated to a parade in Harahan and made appearances at New Orleans Baby Cakes and New Orleans Saints games. They took a trip to visit the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge and did a walk-through at the Saints’ football facility. Johnson said they have upcoming appearances at an LSU football game and with the Houston Astros. They’ve been invited by President Trump to visit the White House and are slated to ride in Mardi Gras parades with the krewes of Bacchus and Centurions in February.
For Johnson, helping to coach the team wasn’t the only thrill for him during Eastbank’s run. His daughter, Paige, gave birth to his first grandchild, Jaxton, just prior to the LLWS. He says he’d love nothing better than to eventually coach his grandson in baseball. Maybe even in the World Series.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.