Local amateur baseball gets national spotlight Friday
“Pop some popcorn and pull up a seat,” Danny Riehm said.
After what has already been an amazing two weeks of amateur baseball in the New Orleans area this month, it’s all there for you on take in on your favorite television screen Friday.
At 3 p.m. New Orleans time, the first area team ever to reach the Little League World Series, Eastbank Little League of River Ridge, opens play in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, against Wailuku, Hawaii, on ESPN.
Then, at 6 p.m., Riehm’s Pedal Valves Cardinals go for a 2-0 start in the American Legion World Series against another unbeaten team, Festus, Missouri, on ESPNU.
Though both teams are making their first trips to their division’s biggest stage, they still have hopes of walking away with a World Series title. And it would be the capper to an amazing summer on the diamond.
We’ve already seen a pair of Dixie Youth World Series championships for age-group teams sponsored by the Jefferson Parish Recreation Department, the 16th national title for the New Orleans entry in the All American Amateur Baseball Association national tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and a national runner-up finish for the Eastbank Little League softball team Wednesday night in Portland.
The difference in the JPRD and New Orleans Boosters programs and the teams in action Friday is simple – the history, or lack thereof.
The initial concept for Eastbank Little League came about shortly after Hurricane Katrina, with the first teams taking to the field earlier this decade. Scott Frazier, who serves as the team’s head coach, and Gibbs Construction CEO and longtime local baseball supporter Larry Gibbs, who continues to serve as the program’s president, were among the driving forces to get Eastbank off the ground.
Little League teams in Lafayette and South Lake Charles had experienced regional titles and the spotlight of Williamsport in the last decade. Despite that lack of history, Eastbank has handled those head-to-head tests, winning the state championship three times in the last five years.
The third trip to the Southwest Regional in Waco, Texas, proved to be the charm. Eastbank completed an unbeaten run through the tournament by defeating Texas West 6-2 in the championship game on Aug. 7.
Pedal Valves’ history is even younger – four years. Riehm, who had coached summer and fall teams known as the New Orleans Spice, saw an opportunity when he witnessed area Legion teams evolving away from having seniors return to their school-based programs the summer after graduation.
“After being on the travel circuit,” Riehm said, “I wanted to find something that was a little bit more meaningful from a history and tradition standpoint. I said, ‘Why can’t we put a (Legion) team together as an independent?’ It all kind of worked out the way we hoped it would.”
They quickly succeeded, winning state championships in their first two years and again this summer.
Like Eastbank, though, it took Pedal Valves three trips to the regional to finally advance. The Cardinals defeated Tupelo, Mississippi, 4-2 in the regional final Sunday in Tampa, then bussed straight to Shelby, North Carolina, the next day to begin World Series preparations.
While the Cardinals are new to the Legion World Series party, it’s not new to New Orleans area, which has produced five national champions, most recently Jesuit-based Retif Oil in 2012.
Riehm has players from seven schools on this year’s team.
“New Orleans is extremely unique in single school-based Legion teams,” he said. “When you look at these rosters at the World Series, at the regionals, it’s all five, six, seven, eight schools mixed together, all within Legion rules.”
Imagine a college starting a baseball team and getting to Omaha five years later. Or launching a basketball program from scratch and making it to the Final Four just as quick.
It’s all the more reason to grab that popcorn, pull up in front of your TV set and root for some local youngsters as they continue their quest to make more history.
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Lenny has been involved in college athletics since the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…