Last year, Cooper Smith made the trip to Williamsport, Pa., just to get a taste of what it was like at the Little League World Series.
The atmosphere, the games, all of it.
“The fields were awesome, the stadium was awesome,” Smith said. “I’d never seen a stadium that was that big and that nice. It really made me want to practice harder and play harder to get to play in that stadium someday.”
Someday will be Friday as Smith, as well as his Coeur d’Alene Little League Majors teammates, take the field for the opening round of the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
“It’s awesome,” Smith said. “It’s even better because I get to play this year. It’s a dream come true. It’s every kid’s dream to go to Williamsport. And we’re getting to do that.”
Jeff Smith, Cooper’s dad and the Coeur d’Alene Little League president, was also a little surprised when he got to Williamsport last summer.
“Pulling into town, it wasn’t any different because there’s nothing like seeing the complex for the first time,” Jeff Smith said. “Cooper, he knew what to expect when they showed up. The other kids were oohing and aahing about the complex. Cooper showed them around, where the souvenir stand, concession stand and the grove was. He already knew the lay of the land.”
This year, Jeff Smith arrived in Williamsport on Wednesday with his wife, Candice.
“We drove up from Baltimore,” Jeff Smith said. “We pulled into where the Little League museum was that overlooks the two stadiums. I pulled over and nudged her and her jaw dropped. It just blows you away. The people here are awesome.”
Coeur d’Alene traveled from California following Saturday’s Northwest Regional victory over Billings, Mont., flying with West Region champion Hawaii to Pennsylvania on Sunday and then busing to Williamsport on Monday. Coeur d’Alene shared a sleeping barrack with Hawaii while in San Bernardino.
“It’s been pretty cool that we’ve been able to share the experience with them,” Coeur d’Alene coach Sean Cherry said. “They’re a great team, but better kids. Their coaches want to be here for all the right reasons. We’d heard what great guys they are, but they’re amazing people as well. They’re really humble.”
Upon arriving in Williamsport, Coeur d’Alene was outfitted in new uniforms (they’ll don the Northwest jersey instead of the Coeur d’Alene Little League ones they wore throughout the Northwest Regional), gloves and equipment. Little League paid for the team to fly from California to Pennsylvania.
“The Little League has been really gracious to do that,” Cherry said. “There’s some cost with the equipment, baggage and other things you don’t expect. And spending $400 to $500 a day feeding 13 kids and three coaches has been expensive, but it’s been an unbelievable experience.”
Coeur d’Alene — which opens against Gross Point Woods (Mich.) Friday at 1 p.m. on ESPN — became the first team from Idaho since South Central Boise in 1999, and only the second ever, to advance to Williamsport. Coeur d’Alene is the first team from Idaho to advance since the addition of the Northwest Region in 2001, part of an expansion of the Little League World Series field from 8 to 16 teams — eight from the U.S., and eight international teams.
“We’ve always preached discipline,” Cherry said. “If you do the right things the right way, you’re going to have some success.”
In its opener at regionals, Coeur d’Alene scored 11 runs in the first inning on the way to a 16-6 win over Seattle.
“We played some clean baseball and put up 11 runs in that first inning,” Cherry said. “We knew that was going to be the most difficult matchup, and after that, we started to think about that W-word (Williamsport). But we never really thought this far ahead. We want to come here and represent. We want to show that Coeur d’Alene has a good baseball program and play our best.”
Some 7,300 teams start the season with the goal of reaching the World Series. Only 16 teams remain.
“It’s something like .002 percent,” Cherry said. “We’ve way exceeded our expectations. From being from a little town like Coeur d’Alene, it’s a big deal. Being here, it’s like having your own personal Disneyland. We’ve got adults at our beck and call and making sure we enjoy ourselves. It’s incredible.”
Coeur d’Alene has spent some of its off time playing whiffle ball against teams from Hawaii, Montana and Rhode Island in the past week.
“It’s been really fun,” said Jake Dannenberg, who plays second base. “It has been a lot of fun getting to learn other teams’ cultures and different ways to have fun.”
As for his first impression of Williamsport?
“It was nothing that I thought of, but everything I dreamed of,” Dannenberg said. “When you watch on television, you’d think it was boring, but when you get here, it’s super awesome. It’s really nice.”
“It was like a dream come true,” said Chase Saunders, an outfielder and catcher. “Seeing other players from Japan has been great. We’re going to try our best.”
Saunders’ dad, Steve, is the first base coach for the team.
“I think I was more excited to get here, but we were both very excited,” Chase Saunders said. “Neither of us have been here before. It’s been a great experience. I didn’t think we’d get close to making it here. I was just hoping to get to San Bernardino, but didn’t expect this.”
Coeur d’Alene has played its last three games on ESPN.
“They don’t even realize they’re there,” said Cherry of his players playing before the ESPN cameras. “They do a good job of making the cameras not be a part of the game. They haven’t been in the dugouts, and you almost wouldn’t know they’re there. The kids aren’t nervous at all. It’s amazing. They took a tough loss last Thursday (a 5-2 loss to Billings), and they had long faces for about 3 1/2 minutes, then turned into 12-year-old kids and wanted to go swimming. I was bummed out for 24 hours.”
“The mindset of the kids was just to go win a couple of games, represent Coeur d’Alene and play some baseball,” Jeff Smith said. “When we beat Washington, I met with the coaches and asked them what was going through their mind, and they said we’ve got a shot. They didn’t stray from the gameplan they had going in. They were able to get everything out of those kids and beat Oregon and Montana to go. Just to get to the (regional) championship, they’re all champions.”
Like in San Bernardino, Coeur d’Alene is staying in a dorm on the campus of the two stadiums in Williamsport — Lamade Stadium, built in 1959, and Volunteer Stadium, added in 2001.
“The camaraderie from there to here is a little less (than California), and they have the teams a little more separated here,” Cherry said. “But the facilities are really nice. This is definitely a step up.”
Since qualifying, as of Wednesday evening, the Coeur d’Alene Little League had raised $6,653 of its $40,000 goal to help parents of players to travel to Williamsport through a GoFundMe.com account.
“I’m absolutely blown away by the response,” Jeff Smith said. “The kids and families aren’t there (in Coeur d’Alene, to help with the fundraising). To come back from California and literally have 36 hours on the ground before leaving again ... I knew we lived in a special community, but this just proves it. The support that was thrown at us, it’s overwhelming and just goes to show what a great place it is.”
Smith added he’s received 154 text messages since Saturday’s win over Billings.
“It’s not just from people in Coeur d’Alene, but from Sandpoint, Lewiston, Hayden and Post Falls,” Jeff Smith said. “It’s about the Northwest. Our kids have been fabulous. They’ve had a lot of stuff thrown at them, but there hasn’t been one complaint. Each of them have stayed on task and been staying really positive. They’re still 13 kids, but are staying really grounded. They’re ready to get back to work.”
Starting Friday, they’ll get to do just that.
This time, just in front of a lot larger audience.