WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The main stadium lights were turned off, but a bottom portion of the lower level still cast a shine onto the diamond where memories are made and dreams realized each August.
Near the top of the famous hill, where children can be seen between pitches sledding across damp grass on cardboard cutouts during the Little League World Series, where thousands spread blankets and devour picnic lunches daily once games commence, players and coaches from Mountain Ridge gathered late Sunday evening.
Pictures were snapped as boys climbed onto tables and anything else that might afford them a better view of the baseball temple that is Howard J. Lamade Stadium.
“It was amazing knowing that we were standing there, that we had made history in getting here,” said Mountain Ridge pitcher/infielder Austin Kryszczuk. “I’ve wanted to come and play in Williamsport since I was 5. It has been a dream of mine, of all of ours. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
The first team in Nevada history to earn a spot in the Little League World Series is having the time of its life, having departed a West Regional victory in San Bernardino on Saturday, flown overnight from Los Angeles to New York and then blinking weary eyes through a five-hour bus ride here.
Brooklyn traffic hastens for no one, not even newly crowned region champions.
Kryszczuk said one or two players might have dozed off during the long but exhilarating journey. Maybe. Probably not.
Mountain Ridge opens play as the West representative on Thursday against the Midwest champion from Rapid City, S.D., at 4 p.m. PDT on ESPN2, but earning a berth here means far more than those games that will eventually match a champion from the United States bracket against one from the International side for the World Series title.
Players and coaches room in barracks at the stadium, away from family and friends and media, able to interact with those from different cultures, with different stories, having arrived from different parts of the world.
There is also the gear. Mountain Ridge players each received a new bat, new cleats, new backpacks, new uniforms, new practice jerseys and new Oakley sunglasses.
“Even if they would have given us nothing, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Kryszczuk said. “Being here is all we wanted. We’re having fun, but I really just want Thursday to get here so we can get back to playing ball, to the game we love.”
It is a fine line to balance for Mountain Ridge manager Ashton Cave, whose primary task before Thursday is to make certain his players enjoy the experience while not losing sight of the ultimate goal:
To compete. To represent. To continue striving for excellence.
“Right now, just speaking to you about it, I’ve got goosebumps,” said Cave, who wasn’t reacting to the steady rain that soaked Williamsport on Tuesday. “The coaches are like the kids — giddy, chucking about things. But we have an agenda and the (Little League) people have their own itinerary for us and rules for everyone. We have a schedule to keep every day. The kids know they will be held accountable. You pull that fire alarm, you’re going home.
“But we want them to be 12 and 13-years old and enjoy all of this. Part of this team’s legacy should be the life-long friendships it makes here. We were only supposed to hit (Monday), but decided to incorporate some fielding into our work. I could see we weren’t getting out of that what we wanted, so I told the other coaches to cut it. We were done. There was a sigh of relief from the kids. We told them to go back to the game room and enjoy some time there.”
It is where they play pingpong and video games, relaxing on recliners while watching ESPN. There is a pool for players to use, but the weather hasn’t yet cooperated.
Mountain Ridge is sharing barracks with teams Australia, Canada and Illinois, the latter being the first all-black team from Chicago to make the Little League World Series in three decades.
“You know, we all stood there Sunday night, the gates were locked, we could only look down onto the stadium, and it sort of hit us all at once,” Cave said. “It sort of got quiet for a moment. We let it sink in. We wanted to show respect for everything this place represents. Then it was like, ‘Someone pinch us.’ Are we really here? Did we really make it?’
“It was a dreamlike experience.”
Except it isn’t a dream.
They’re here, enjoying every second of it.
Having the time of their lives.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.