The message remained consistent to the end, the belief that while winning games at the Little League World Series was important, nothing should prove bigger than the journey.
Mountain Ridge began its summer All-Star experience three months ago and was one of four teams to live until the final day of the Little League season, falling to Japan 5-0 on Sunday in a third-place game before 7,083 at Lamade Stadium and an ESPN audience.
Ashton Cave, on the last time he would manage the Las Vegas team, again proved he understood the mission better than anyone. That he got it.
He started his reserves and used leading players Austin Kryszczuk, Bradley Stone and Brennan Holligan in pinch-hitting roles.
It’s as it should have been, with names like Payton Brooks and Josh Zuehlsdorff and Justin Hausner and Andrew Matulich and Dominic Clayton starting.
“It was great that the coaches did that,” Kryszczuk said. “Those guys work harder than anyone on our team trying to get into (the lineup). They make me better and the entire team better. When they heard about it (Saturday) night, they were jumping around yelling, ‘We’re starting against Japan!’ That was really cool.”
Said Holligan: “They were able to enjoy the experience like all of us. One-hundred percent, that’s how we should have done it today. This was a team effort getting here, and without them, we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”
There is a story that sums up the Mountain Ridge experience in Williamsport: Dillon Jones drew a picture when he was 8 of Lamade Stadium and a game in which he was pitching against Japan, a piece of a little boy’s artwork his parents have saved to this day.
On Sunday, in the bottom of the fifth inning, Jones took the mound.
“I just always thought it would be amazing to play here and in front of so many people,” Jones said. “I thought Japan was always the best team, so I drew it of me shutting them down and closing a game out.
“We didn’t (win) the game, but it does prove dreams come true if you work hard enough. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us. We need to soak it all in.”
Jones allowed two runs on three hits in his inning of work, but it would have been tough enough to defeat Japan had Mountain Ridge gone with its regular lineup, given ace Takuma Takahashi was pitching and allowed just three hits while striking out 11 over six innings.
Takahashi is something.
“He was throwing BBs,” Kryszczuk said.
Mountain Ridge threw four pitchers over five innings— Zach Hare, Matulich, Zuehlsdorff and Jones — and none of its top three.
Final numbers for Mountain Ridge here as the United States runner-up: A 3-2 record and having outscored its opponents 38-17.
The looks of Mountain Ridge players and coaches afterward were those of relief and weariness and satisfaction. It has been a long three months, advancing at tournaments for district and state and regionals and now here.
Many players emerged from the team barracks following Sunday’s game to hug their parents and take pictures with fans and sign autographs.
Some carried bags of dirt taken from the Lamade Stadium field, the sort of keepsake a 12-year old believes he will cherish forever and one day show his own son.
The team returns to Las Vegas today, arriving at 8:30 p.m. on a flight from Philadelphia and to a sense of reality of which can’t be properly prepared for in such a short time.
There is a rally with the mayor and a downtown parade planned for Saturday. The lives of 14 young men have changed forever.
“I don’t know if they’re excited to get back to school, but it will be good for them to go back and be kids and keep growing into what we all hope will be responsible men and adults one day,” Cave said. “Little League is about giving all kids an opportunity, so I thought it was great some who haven’t played much were able to experience starting today, making that first catch or getting a hit or getting on the mound and throwing strikes. They were able to generate some memories that will last a lifetime.
“I think right now they are all just taking in this final game, knowing that was the last time they will play on that field. They’re allowing the entire experience to sink in. Little League is about making dreams come true, and they did here for 14 boys from Las Vegas.
“Now, it’s time to go home.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.