Trip to Little League World Series remains a priceless memory
Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file 2008
The Mill Creek Little League All-Stars celebrate the 10-0 win that advanced them to the regional tournament in California in July 2008.
Courtesy of Little League International, South Wil
The 2008 Little League Baseball World Series Northwest Region Champions. In front (from left) are Jake Black, Duncan Bartok, K.J. Neaville, Derrick Mahlum, Daniel Jang, Dan Kingma and Casey Dawes. In back (from left) are coach Gary Dawes, Joakim Soderqvist, Alec Kisena, J.D. Wiggins, manager Scott Mahlum, Jason Todd, Alex Jondal, Alek Baumgartner and coach Brian Jang.
Jeff Faddis / For The Herald
Members of the same team in March 2013. Front row (from left): K.J. Neaville, Derrick Mahlum, Daniel Jang, Dan Kingma and Casey Dawes. Back row (from left) coach Gary Dawes, Alec Kisena, Joakim Soderqvist, J.D. Wiggins, manager Scott Mahlum, Jason Todd, Alek Baumgartner and coach Brian Jang.
But five years ago, 13 kids from Mill Creek had a summer unlike any other. In the space of two months they traveled the country, appeared on national television, became sports celebrities and gathered enough memories to last a lifetime.
"It was a summer I'll never forget," outfielder Casey Dawes said. "We were 12 years old and playing baseball with our best friends every day. What more could you ask for?"
"It was baseball all summer and it never got old," pitcher/first baseman Alec Kisena said. "It's just what we wanted our summer to be."
And as pitcher/third baseman Joakim Soderqvist remembers, "It was magical."
They were the Mill Creek Little League All-Stars and they were superb. With players picked from seven of the league's eight regular-season teams, they went undefeated to win the District 1 (Snohomish County) championship. They went undefeated to win the Washington state championship. They went undefeated to win the six-state Northwest regional championship. And they advanced to the annual Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Alas, they came up short in the United States semifinal, losing to a Hawaii team that would win the championship four days later. But if the outcome was disappointing, the journey was not.
"It was a great group of kids," said Scott Mahlum, the team's head coach. "They'd competed against each other (during the regular season), but they all knew that All-Stars was the end goal. That was even more important than the regular season. It was the prize at the end of the year, and the goal was to be on that team and to have that team succeed."
Even before the season, Mahlum understood his players' potential. As 10-year-olds, they had reached the state tournament. They went to state the next year, too, and this time they won. And as 12-year-olds in 2008, "we knew it would be a special group," he said.
"Going into that year, we pretty much believed that anything less than the Little League World Series would have been a disappointing season. They were that confident and that good. We had a core of six or seven kids that were dynamite players, and then we had some role players and the whole thing worked out fantastic."
Pitchers Jason Todd and Derrick Mahlum (Scott's son) got most of the mound work, with each winning seven of the team's 19 games. Todd was particularly dominating, striking out 80 in 40 1/3 innings with a 1.34 earned-run average. Mahlum whiffed 55 in 36 innings with a 2.00 ERA.
But as good as the pitching was, the offense was even better. The team scored 203 runs in 19 games, an average of 10.7 a game. They hit 43 home runs (2.3 a game), with Soderqvist slugging 10, followed by Mahlum with nine and Todd with eight. Soderqvist and Todd both batted better than .500; Mahlum, Alex Baumgartner and Alex Jondal were all over .400, and five other players topped .300, giving the team a collective .406 batting average.
"The strength of that team was the lineup offensively," Soderqvist said. "Everybody was a fantastic hitter. We had 13 players, and everyone played not just because they had to because of a Little League rule, but because everyone was good enough to play any position.
"The pitchers we faced couldn't look forward to facing any part of our lineup because even at the bottom, the 6-7-8-9 hitters, there was no letting up. Those players were as tough to get out as the top of the lineup was."
Mill Creek blew through the district and state tournaments to reach the regional tournament in San Bernardino, Calif., where the dominance continued. Against the best teams from Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska, Mill Creek won six games by a combined 80-8 margin to clinch a berth at the World Series.
From San Bernardino, the team and many of the parents flew straight to Newark, N.J., and then took a five-hour bus ride to Williamsport in north-central Pennsylvania.
"We didn't know where we were," Dawes said. "But once we got there it was beautiful. The whole countryside in Pennsylvania is really nice, and to this day those are the nicest fields I've ever played on. The whole atmosphere was centered around baseball and Little Leaguers, and it was great."
Optimism was high for the World Series opener. But against Lake Charles, La., and facing a pitcher "who threw harder than anybody I'd ever seen," Soderqvist said, Mill Creek lost 5-1. It was the team's first defeat in 16 games.
"Losing that game was a shocker," Derrick Mahlum said, "because we'd been on such a long winning streak. But it also let us know that we still needed to compete."
The team won its next two games to reach the semifinals, where Mill Creek faced a squad from Waipahu, Hawaii. Mill Creek started well, scoring twice in the top of the first inning, but Hawaii countered with four runs in the bottom of the first. Mill Creek cut the deficit to 4-3 in the top of the second, but from there Hawaii began to pull away.
It was 7-3 after three innings and 9-4 after four. When Mill Creek failed to score in the last two innings, the game was over and the tears began.
"A lot of guys took it really hard," Soderqvist said. "A lot of them were crying."
"It was very disappointing," Kisena said. "To have it come down to one game and to lose it all, for a couple of hours afterward it was really tough to get through that."
Hawaii was certainly a good team, Scott Mahlum said, "but if we'd played them 10 times, I think we'd win eight times." Throughout the World Series, he went on, "we didn't play our best baseball. We just didn't play like we did at the regionals. … Going in we were one of the favorites, so it was tough for the boys to swallow that we didn't win it all."
Five years have passed since the Mill Creek kids took the local baseball world by storm. Today seven are high school seniors, six are juniors, and all but three attend Jackson High School in Mill Creek. Dawes and Mahlum are at nearby Archbishop Murphy High School, while Jondal's family moved to Spokane, where he attends Ferris High School.
Some have drifted away from baseball, but others still excel. Eight are varsity players this spring, including five who were first-team all-conference picks a year ago. Scott Mahlum predicts that six will play in college.
But even as their lives have begun branching in different directions, their shared history of five years ago remains a common link.
"There's a great bond between us," Kisena said. "We spent many hours together (that summer) and some of us still do. And whenever we get together, it always brings back the memories we had."
It was, Dawes said, "the best time of my life. And when we all see each other, there's still that everlasting friendship. It's something we'll never forget."
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