L'ANSE - After three last-inning wins of their own in the Little League Minor (9-10 years old) District 11 tournament, the Keweenaw All-Star parents and coaches have seen first-hand just how difficult it is to protect a lead.
But while the tension of Thursday's championship game against Portage Lake could be felt on the bench and in the stands, the players showed no sign of stress on the field as they took a 12-8 lead into the top of the sixth.
Portage Lake did its best Keweenaw impression, scoring three runs on three hits and an error - including two booming doubles - but Keweenaw responded with a superlative play of its own, recording the last out of the tournament on a textbook relay throw to third base.
The Keweenaw Minor (9-10 years old) All-Stars hold up their championship banner after defeating Portage Lake 12-11 in the final. The team includes Scott and Dean Loukus, Brevin Antilla, Landon Johnson, Carter Crouch, Taylor Gardner, Drake Schmitz, Noah Bach, Sammy Erkkilla, Hunter Rowe and Cole Gregoire. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
With two outs in the frame, PL cleanup hitter Isaiah Little drove in a pair of runs with a double over centerfielder Noah Bach's head, but Bach quickly gathered the ball and nailed cutoff man Carter Crouch. As Little sped toward third, Crouch turned and threw a strike into the waiting glove of third baseman Drake Schmitz.
Schmitz quickly applied the tag - he had Little by several feet - and just like that, Keweenaw was heading to the state tournament in Kalamazoo one week from now with a 12-11 final.
"We are just so proud of the boys and Portage should be too," Keweenaw coach Adam Loukus said. "It was awesome having us and Portage, two teams from the same area in there. Everyone was playing hard and making plays. When you see kids responding like that it is a great feeling as a coach."
Carter's throw in particular was a play to remember.
"I was thinking if I didn't get him out the game was over," Crouch said after the game, adding he was "really excited" for the state tournament.
"Every single practice we practice hitting the relay man from the outfield," Loukus addded. "And Carter has a gun and it was right on the money that time."
After a well-defensed game Wednesday - which Keweenaw won 5-4 - there were some classic Little League gaffes in the first inning that inflated the scoring.
Portage proved it was over the last loss by posting a five-run first inning, on one hit and four walks, but Keweenaw immediately responded with seven runs of its own, collecting four hits in the process.
"That was huge," Loukus said. "If they had come out and just held that five-run lead right there, that is a hard thing to overcome. Then you are thinking about it every time up to bat. But they responded early and showed they were here to play."
Scott Loukus led Keweenaw with three hits and three RBIs, while Dean Loukus, Landon Johnson, Crouch, Schmitz, Bach, Taylor Gardner (two) and Sammy Erkkilla all reached base safely. Keweenaw totaled 11 hits for the game.
PJ Donnelly led Portage Lake with two hits, including a double, and three runs scored. Davin Hill, Little, Jackson Rocchi and Colton Salani also recorded hits.
"They all know they can hit it," Loukus said. "And then it is contagious."