Westside Little Leaguers on another roll, with Williamsport in their sights

Patton Eagle is a recent college graduate, now working in the oil and gas business in Oklahoma City. That makes it a little tough to keep up with developments in Fort Worth Little League baseball.

A few days ago, he learned the latest news in a telephone call with his father, who still lives here.

And for Eagle, the memories from magical summer days in 2002 came flooding back.

“Man, I just thought about all the guys on my team, and where they are, and how long ago that was,” he said Tuesday. “It went through my mind how we all stayed in touch, and how we were honored at the Fort Worth Cats’ stadium, and were on the field with the Texas Rangers.

“It was kind of cool,” he said. “That thing keeps coming back up. People are still talking about it today.”

That’s certainly true this week, more so than any other time in the past 11 years.

In 2002, Eagle’s Fort Worth team, the Westside All-Stars, earned local rock star status by advancing to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

This summer, for the first time since, the current Westside squad is on a similar roll, advancing through two tough tournaments with a dramatic flair reminiscent of their famous forebears.

At 8 p.m. Thursday in San Angelo, the 11- and 12-year-old Westsiders will begin the Texas West tournament against Corpus Christi. Midland and Del Rio round out the field in what could be the toughest obstacle between the Fort Worth boys and a return to Williamsport.

“I don’t know that these kids are thinking about 2002 at this point,” manager Alan Shipman said. “At the time that happened, these kids were either not born or were 1. And there is still so much that would have to happen for us to get back there.

“You have to be good. You have to be lucky, a lot of things coming together. Certainly, I hope it does.”

The coach is incorrect in one respect. His players are thinking about 2002.

They have heard about that team and want to replicate the achievement. Despite the old dictum of taking it one game at a time, they are dreaming of their own trip to the nationally televised World Series, an event that holds the nation in thrall every year.

“I always watched it on TV the last two years,” outfielder Sam Elkind said. “It’s a hard goal to reach, but I think we can get there. We have to work hard, but we’ve been working hard. It would be a dream come true. It would be fun to take a plane trip, too.”

Among those closely following the latest group is Jon Kelly, manager of the 2002 team, which was the first from Fort Worth to advance to the World Series since 1960.

“Yes, it’s brought back a lot of memories, and, hopefully, there will be a lot more memories as we go along,” Kelly said.

Thinking back, he credits “serendipity” for the Westsiders’ 2002 trip to Pennsylvania. The team faced elimination 11 times in its march to glory, prevailing in every nail-biter.

“I just remember how fun it is to advance from one level to another, the adventure of the progression,” Kelly said. “That’s what they’re experiencing now. There is just nothing better.”

At the World Series, the Fort Worth team acquitted itself admirably, winning two games before being knocked out in an epic 11-inning tilt against Kentucky.

“Every single game was so intense, because every game counted,” Eagle remembered. “We played every game as if it was going to be the end of our journey. The way our team bonded that summer was just unbelievable.”

The adulation when the players returned to Fort Worth wasn’t bad, either.

“That’s why we didn’t want it to end,” Eagle said, laughing.

Players on this year’s team had been successful at younger ages, but expectations were modest entering the district tournament against other North Texas teams. They advanced there, but at the section tournament in Waco, they quickly fell into the losers bracket, forcing them to win four straight games to advance.

“After we went into the losers bracket in Waco, we thought, ‘Uh-oh. It’s very unlikely we can win this,’” Shipman said. “But the kids never showed any of that. They’re just a bunch of knuckleheads. They just come out so loose every game.”

Elkind admits feeling a little pressure. During a one-run game against powerful Abilene, runners were on base when a fly ball landed in his glove for the final out.

“After the game, I was still shaking,” Elkind said. “I thought, ‘What if I missed that?’”

The Westsiders finally advanced by handily beating Garland two straight games Sunday. And the comparisons really began.

If the Westsiders prevail this weekend, they advance to a regional tournament against teams from neighboring states. The winner there advances to the World Series.

But this weekend will probably provide tougher competition.

“There are many more teams in Texas than there are in New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma,” Shipman said. “Whoever wins this tournament has a very good chance of going to Williamsport.”

In the past few days, as the excitement has grown, members of the 2002 team were asked whether they had any advice for this year’s group. They did, but it didn’t really have to do with baseball.

Rand Ravnaas, an outfielder in 2002, remembered the long trips he and his teammates took in his dad’s Land Rover.

“We’d fit as many as we could in that car, play the music pretty loud, laughing and making jokes all the time,” said Ravnaas, one of only two players from the 2002 team to play college ball, at Georgetown.

“Not really worrying about the game. There were a lot of really cool things that happened on the field, but that’s what sticks out the most.

“I mean, if I were to speak to them, I would tell them to relax, not think about it. Don’t put any more pressure on yourself,” he said. “That’s when you play best. Enjoy the moment and take in the whole experience as much as you can.”

Eagle agreed that friendships and fun were most important.

“The chemistry we had was incredible,” he said. “If this team has what we had, they could make it a long way for sure.”

It appears that the guys on this year’s team have already figured that out.

“It’s been great. We’ve all had a blast,” said Jonathan Castillo, who pitches and catches. “We have a great chance of going to the World Series. This team hangs out with each other, has a great time with each other.”

If history does repeat, it seems that will be a big reason why.

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