SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — It was rather somber mood in the Coon Rapids/Andover dugout last weekend when the Minnesota state champ trailed Johnston (Iowa) by four runs in the championship game of the Midwest Regional.
With a trip to the Little League World Series on the line, as much as coach Greg Bloom tried his best to keep the mood light, doubt had started to creep in.
“It was a tough situation,” Bloom said. “You kind of start to think, ‘Oh. This might not happen.’”
That feeling resonated among the team’s 12-year-old players with everyone fearing their special season was coming to a close.
“I thought we were done,” said Jack Brandl, who plays outfield, second base and shortstop for the team. “I thought the journey was going to end there.”
That, of course, wasn’t the case, as Coon Rapids/Andover rallied to tie the score before 5-foot-3, 193-pound Jameson Kuznia launched a three-run homer to dead center field to put his team on top for good.
“As soon as he hit it, I was like, ‘Oh. That has a chance,’” Brandl said. “Then it went out and everyone went crazy.”
“It was awesome,” added Dylan Bloom, the coach’s son, who plays first base, outfield and pitches. “After it went over the fence, we knew we were going to win.”
In the following inning, pitcher Jaxson Newson struck out the final batter of the game with the bases loaded to secure the victory. And just like that, Coon Rapids/Andover became the first team from Minnesota to advance the Little League World Series since 2010.
It will represent the Midwest Region in the 16-team tournament, opening play at 6 p.m. Thursday against Bowling Green, Ky., the Great Lakes Region champion. The tournament is to be televised on ESPN2.
After winning the regional, the Coon Rapids/Andover team piled into a bus for the nine-hour drive to Williamsport, Pa., arriving Sunday afternoon and since then soaking in everything the Little League World Series has to offer.
“It feels like we’re famous,” Brandl said, adding he’s gotten “like 30 text messages” over the past few days. “This place is amazing. It’s been a really fun experience so far. I’m glad we made it because we will never get to do something like this again.”
As much as there is for players to do on site, some of the smaller things — like simply walking around the grounds of Howard J. Lamade Stadium — have left the biggest impressions so far.
“Just walking around here feels like a fantasy,” said Drew Law, a catcher, shortstop and outfielder. “I still can’t believe we’re here.”
“I was surprised how big it was,” Dylan Bloom added. “I’ve always watched it on TV and it looks a lot smaller.”
Making it to the Little League World Series was the ultimate goal Coon Rapids/Andover set for itself at the beginning of the season, and it wasn’t long before Greg Bloom started to realize this group had what it took.
“Just seeing them take it upon themselves in practice to make sure this team was on the right track,” he said. “That started with them taking over the stretches at the start of practice and then they started taking over other stuff along the way. We have a lot of good leaders on this team, and as soon as we started seeing those things, we knew we were going to be in pretty good shape.”
As for his team’s chances in the 10-day, double-elimination tournament, Greg Bloom seemed confident, pointing to the fact that they have good hitters up and down the lineup and tons of pitchers who can step up in any situation.
“That’s kind of the recipe for success out here,” he said. “You’ve got to have both, and we do, so hopefully we can make a run.”
If they do, there will be even more hype surrounding the 12-year-olds from Coon Rapids/Andover, with everyone back home following along from afar.
Not that they plan on getting caught up in all of that.
“We just need to make sure to play our game,” Brandl said. “Just pretend like we’re back at home playing. If we do that, I think we have a good chance."