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Mountain Ridge Little League stole Las Vegas’ heart 5 years ago
Las Vegas' Dominic Clayton, center, celebrates with teammates Josh Zuehlsdorff, left, and Dillon Jones after hitting a two-run home run off Chicago pitcher Cameron Bufford during the fourth inning of a baseball game in United States pool play at the Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., in August 2014. Las Vegas won 13-2. (Associated Press file)

Mountain Ridge Little League stole Las Vegas’ heart 5 years ago

T

he dream summer of 2014 actually began a year prior, when a group of 11-under All-Star baseball players were down eight runs with six outs to go against a team from Henderson in the state championship game.

The Mountain Ridge Little League kids had played together for several years. Their coaching staff had watched each player grow and develop and offer the impression that such a roster might ultimately produce something altogether memorable.

“We put together one of the most epic comebacks you would believe in that state championship,” said Ashton Cave, Mountain Ridge’s manager. “A switch was turned. We came back to win it. That’s when we really knew we might have something.

“That’s when the magic really began.”

The following summer, such enchantment gripped Las Vegas like few sports stories have. Five years later, IT remains one of the most improbable runs in Southern Nevada history.

Yes, that much time has passed.

The 73rd edition of the Little League World Series begins this week in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Eight teams from the United States and eight international squads will compete for the right to be handed a championship banner and run around Lamade Stadium when things conclude Aug. 25.

Mountain Ridge never knew such a moment, falling in the consolation game to Japan on the tournament’s final day before being named U.S. champion about six months later after a team from Chicago was stripped of its title for using ineligible players.

“It’s like that (Kenny Chesney) country song, ‘Don’t Blink,’” Cave said. “Five years. Blink of an eye. Gone. It’s amazing how time flies and life changes in the process.

“You live in the moment and enjoy it, and then life takes over and you go on.”

But those 14 players and the coaching staff who brought Las Vegas to a moment it had never known are not forgotten.

A city unites

Curtis Livreri was born and raised in Las Vegas, played high school ball at Western and has been a special education teacher and softball coach at Centennial since 2004.

He lived and died with each jump shot from UNLV’s national championship run in basketball, with Rebels pennants and banners and trading cards of Larry Johnson on his bedroom walls.

He is as Vegas as it gets when it comes to sports.

So when he watched Mountain Ridge become the first team in Nevada history to qualify for the World Series, Livreri didn’t think twice. He booked an airline ticket the following day and headed to Williamsport.

Without a kid on the team.

Without any connection to it at all.

“I was a 12-year-old growing up here in the position of the Mountain Ridge team, trying to get there,” said Livreri, who played for the Central Little League. “We came up short. To see it actually happen and what it did for Las Vegas was amazing.

“Obviously, the Golden Knights weren’t here yet, but I would definitely compare what those kids did to the 1990 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. The excitement that Little League team brought to the city was that big. Twenty years from now, those kids will still be looked on as legends for the ones who got Las Vegas to the Little League World Series.”

The Mountain Ridge Little League baseball team from Las Vegas participates in the opening cerem ...
The Mountain Ridge Little League baseball team from Las Vegas participates in the opening ceremony of the 2014 Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

If it’s true your story is the greatest legacy that you will leave others, the one Mountain Ridge wrote that late August struck a prideful note across the city, as watch parties grew with each passing game and 14 boys became overnight celebrities across the valley.

Unique storylines almost always define Williamsport, and 2014 was no different. There was Philadelphia native Mo’ne Davis, the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. There was the team from Chicago, the first all-black team in 31 years to qualify for the event.

And, yes, there was Mountain Ridge.

It would dominate early in the week and not lose its first game of the summer until the U.S. championship, when Chicago avenged an earlier defeat in the draw by beating Cave’s team 7-5.

Then came the 5-0 loss to Japan.

It meant the Nevada team would end its summer with a 17-2 record, a collaborative effort of Cave and his coaching staff of Bob Kryszczuk and Roland Watkins, of then-league president Kristi Black, of countless volunteers and donations.

Of, most importantly, those 14 kids.

Few, if any, are more qualified to speak on Las Vegas baseball than Rodger Fairless, an all-state player at Rancho in the late 1960s and early 1970s who went on to win 493 games and a record 12 Nevada championships as a coach at three high schools, including six straight from 1993 to 1998 at Green Valley.

A member of the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame, Fairless watched with interest as Mountain Ridge ignited the spirit of a city.

“I wasn’t surprised about the (local reaction), because I think there are enough people here who realized what an amazing accomplishment it was,” Fairless said. “I would watch (Cave) talk and came to understand what a dedicated coaching staff that was. You don’t reach that elite level without great coaching and kids who really want to compete.

Arbor View’s Payton Brooks, left, and Brad Stone (4), who played for Mountain Ridge, celebrat ...
Arbor View’s Payton Brooks, left, and Brad Stone (4), who played for Mountain Ridge, celebrate at the class 4A state baseball tournament May 15. (Heidi Fang /Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“A lot of Little League teams are about throwing the ball out there and having fun. But to achieve what they did and beat the teams they beat from much larger states takes so much more. It really produced a great sense of community for Las Vegas.”

One question always posed after such a time deals with how many of a team’s players continue to play baseball into their high school years and possibly college.

In the case of Mountain Ridge, most of them.

This year, Centennial hosted Arbor View in a first-round playoff game, and on the field were a combined eight players from the Mountain Ridge team.

A day later, Josiah Cromwick hit a solo home run with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning that lifted Palo Verde past Centennial 3-2 in an elimination game — a Mountain Ridge player knocking out a team that included six of his former Little League teammates.

Of those who graduated high school this year, four — Austin Kryszczuk (UNLV), Dominic Clayton (San Diego Christian), Zach Hare (College of Southern Nevada) and Brennan Holligan (CSN) — will play collegiately next season.

“Yes, that team had a lot of talent, and Kryszczuk became a star across the nation during the World Series, but they were also kind and courteous and did things the right way,” Livreri said. “That gets lost in all of this. It’s a huge credit to Ashton Cave and his staff for how a bunch of 11- and 12-year-olds handled themselves and represented Las Vegas in the best way possible.”

How to be remembered

Before the team departed for the Western Regional in San Bernardino, California, the final stop before earning a trip to Williamsport, Cave gathered his players on Mountain Ridge Little League Field 3.

The place where that incredible rally from eight runs down with six outs left in the state championship occurred the previous summer.

A scoreboard dedicated to the Mountain Ridge Little League team that went to the 2014 Little Le ...
A scoreboard dedicated to the Mountain Ridge Little League team that went to the 2014 Little League World Series at Mountain Ridge Park in Las Vegas, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (Heidi Fang /Las Vegas Review-Journal) @HeidiFang

The place where the magic really began.

The team made a circle, and Cave and his coaches spoke about each player, about what positive influences they brought to the group, about why they were such important pieces to the puzzle, about how each individual had sacrificed to be part of something much bigger.

How they believed in them.

How they trusted them.

It’s five years later.

“I want the team to be remembered for the motto on the back of the shirts we wore — ‘Always Earned, Never Given,’” said Cave, now 41 and currently on the captain’s list for the Clark County Fire Department. “I hope they learned there is so much more to life than baseball. Work hard. Make a difference in the lives of those you come in contact with. Be mentors to young kids who, to this day, still look up to you. Be good, quality people. Be good fathers and husbands.

“Don’t be remembered for just a moment in time, but for the young men you have become in society because of that time.”

Oh, yeah.

And don’t blink.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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