LA VERNE LITTLE LEAGUE ALL-STARS: No Names No Longer, On a Fire-Fueled Night, Their Dream Draws a Little Closer

July 24, 2017
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Joy and bedlam break out after Morgan Smith belts a round-tripper.

Before the start of Sunday’s Little League divisional contest between La Verne and Long Beach at Stearns Champions Park in Long Beach, the city of La Verne was having an identity crisis. While everyone knew where Long Beach was (indeed, the city is home to the Queen Mary and back-to-back Little League World Series champions in 1992 and 1993 — the great Jeff Burroughs-coached and Sean Burroughs-led teams), people were scrambling to pinpoint the precise whereabouts of tiny La Verne.


First came the inevitable La Verne & Shirley television inspired jokes. “I think La Verne is somewhere near Shirley” came one retort. Another heard before the start of the game was “I think it’s up there by Duarte or by Fairplex.”


After Sunday night’s twilight special in which La Verne defeated Long Beach 12-3, there’s no more mistaking where La Verne is.


It is the home of Matthew Bustos, Gabriel Hibbard, Tyler Holley, Justin Kearns, Travis Owen, Tristan Rambaud, Clayton Roland, Justin Santiago, Mikah Smith, Morgan Smith, Nolan Smith and Seth Wrightstone.

That’s Morgan Smith taking his familiar post-season trot around the bases.


On Sunday, this La Verne group of Louisville Sluggers collectively put on a performance that will be long remembered, leaving little double about La Verne’s Google Maps status. Even the La Verne fire, drawing local television coverage, that broke out 90 minutes before the start of play on Sunday could not have overshadowed the boys from La Verne. Indeed, they sparked brighter and burned hotter than any foothills brush fire.


Over the course of six innings, La Verne pounded out 15 hits, including two home runs. The devastation of Long Beach started as a slow burn. With two outs in the top of the first, Seth Wrightstone lined a sharp single that scored Bustos, who had gotten aboard on a fielder’s choice. Bustos had arrived at home plate fractions of a second ahead of a relay throw from right field. Moments later, Tyler Holley also tried to score on a blocked pitch in front of the plate, but he was called out. The daring but ultimately unsuccessful running play offered a dubious start to the game, but La Verne clung to a 1-0 lead.


The lead didn’t last long, however, because in the bottom of the frame, Long Beach’s Ryan Burack blasted a home run to knot the score, 1-1.


However, outside that solo blast, La Verne’s Morgan Smith was dealing, his fastball and curve ball helping to return Long Beach’s powerful lineup quickly back to the bench.


The top of the telltale second inning began innocently enough. Trevor Owen walked, which was followed by a solid single from Nolan Smith. Next up, Clayton Roland singled up the middle, the ball tipping the pitcher’s glove and landing in no man’s land. Suddenly, the bases were loaded with no outs. Micah Smith rolled out to second to bring in a run and Justin Santiago singled to drive in another. Then as he has all post-season, Morgan Smith delivered the big blow, a three-run homer that put La Verne up, 6-1.


But instead of calling it a good and productive inning, La Verne simply reloaded. Even the outs they made were productive. Bustos walked, Holley singled, Wrightstone bounced out to short driving in a run, Owen got on again aboard an error, Nolan Smith doubled and then Roland smashed a two-run homer. Mikah Smith singled and Santiago blooped still another hit into center field. The inning only expired when Morgan Smith’s sharp hit was nicely backhanded at second to create a force play. At one point, Long Beach was changing pitchers more often than the Trump administration changes press secretaries.


Clayton Roland is another of La Verne’s big hitters who enjoyed home run success on Sunday.

At the end of one and one-half-innings of play, La Verne led 11-1, but it felt as if the team had already played two ballgames.


To his credit, Morgan Smith kept his focus on the mound, limiting Long Beach to another single run in the bottom of the third. The damage could have been more if not for a sprawling, innings-ending, pedal-to-the-medal, bases-loaded catch byLa Verne center fielder Justin “Grass Burns” Kearns.


I didn’t think I was going to get there at first,” Kearns said after the game. “But when I saw that Gabe wasn’t going to get there, I thought, ‘Oh, shoot, I’ve got to try to make the catch,’ and I barely got there.’”


Kearns gloved the ball, but the subsequent impact of his hitting the ground offered little guarantee that the ball would remain in his glove.


“I was holding on for dear life, trying not to drop it,” Kearns added. “If I had dropped it, then they score a bunch of runs and have a big inning.”


La Verne also got big defensive plays from Mikah Smith patrolling center as well as from catcher Tyler Holley, who snagged two pop-ups behind the plate including one that drove him into the backstop netting.


“I was hoping it wasn’t going to hit the fence, so I jumped and when I looked in my glove, I had it,” Holley said.


On the hill, as tough as Morgan Smith was, perhaps the tougher job fell to Travis Owen who pitched innings four, five and six for La Verne. Playing with a large lead is not always a pitcher’s best friend — some teams seem to lose focus — but Owen didn’t seem to mind.


“It’s good to have a good lead, you don’t have to stress much, Owen said. “I just relied on my defense to make plays for me.” 


And it’s also good to have a 2-0 record in one one of the toughest, most competitive youth baseball competitions anywhere on the planet, even if you’re a team from a town few people seemed to know about.


That all changed on Sunday night!


La Verne resumes play on Thursday night at 6 p.m. at Stearns in Long Beach. They are two wins shy of making it to the Western Regionals in San Bernardino, a level no La Verne Little League team in its more than half-century history has reached.


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