The city’s West Side played host to its first ever Little League Baseball Tournament last month with the Austin A’s going all the way to the semifinals held in Garfield Park.
The Austin Little League boasted three all-star teams that competed in the Little League World Series Tournament for age groups 9-10, 11-12 and 13-14.
The Austin A’s (age group 11-12) took the quarterfinal game with a 6-5 win over Garfield Park on July 7, before dropping their semifinal match-up against Warren Park 6-2 two days later. Members of the team said the semifinal loss pales in comparison to the thrill of just being able to play ball.
“It was fun,” said 10-year-old Donnie Allison, a student at Octavio Paz Charter School who added that he was nervous about playing in his first tourney. “I thought I was going to do bad.”
But he relied on his coaches and his six years of playing baseball to get him through the series. He said the key to clenching the quarterfinal game was “playing smart” and throwing “the ball to the right places.”
Coach Tommy Bowling shared the youths’ enthusiasm.
“It was exciting to watch them, for their first year, get as far as they did. I’m looking forward to next year, because I know we can actually take it farther,” said Bowling, one of 13 coaches for Austin Little League.
For coach Tony Hirschtritt it’s all about teamwork, giving kids the experience to play in tournaments and the rigors that come with it.
“For me, I stress the team aspect more than the winning – making sure they are supporting each other because these guys are going to stay together for some time,” said Hirschtritt, whose son, Jake “the Snake” also plays on the team.
Austin Safety Networks partnered with the Westside Youth League to launch the Austin Little League. The Austin community previously had a team before but it was disbanded for unknown reasons, Bowling noted.
Now the league boasts 12 teams, including the all-star teams that play in the Little League World Series Tournament. The league also has travel teams under the name Wolfpack that competes throughout the country. Two Wolfpack teams (ages 9-10 and 11-12) placed third in the Beloit Bombers Tournament in Beloit, Wis., over the weekend.
Little League baseball’s return to the West Side was met with an overwhelming response, Bowling noted. When the league launched in January, more than 300 youth applied. Now the league has more than 200 youth ranging in ages from 4-18.
The response shows that kids want positive outlets to keep them off the streets, noted Bowling, who next year hopes to create a collegiate division for 19-24 year olds.
“Kids like sports period,” he said. “All they want to do is just have fun. If you have an activity of any kind, it will definitely keep them off the streets.”
Little League baseball has become more than just a game, but a confidence booster that goes beyond the ball field and into the classroom, said LaTanya Gailey, Westside Youth League’s president. She noted the kids will call their teammates to see how they did on a test or if they need help with homework.
“They encourage each other,” she said. “They are taking responsibility for their actions. If they want to get to another level they have to work hard to do that.”
Gailey’s son, Devin, 9, described playing in his first tournament as “fun and cool,” especially when he takes the pitcher’s mound. He likes throwing curves, change ups and fastballs. The objective, he said, is “striking people out.”
Taylor Bowling, 12, a student at Chicago Academy Elementary School, was happy when his team won in the quarterfinals. He said Garfield Park had some “fast throwing pitchers.”
“I was nervous even though I hit the ball twice against their pitching,” he said. “I knew we were going to win when Zach got up to bat.”
Zachary Moreno, who is one of the best hitters on the team, hit a two-run homer to clinch the quarterfinals.
Bowling, whose father also coaches the team, expressed disappointment at the semifinal loss, a loss that took them out of contention to play in the Little League World Series.
“Everybody wanted to be on TV,” he said.
For Jake “the Snake” Hircshtritt playing in the tournament was a growing lesson. “We had too big of an ego. We thought we were going to crush them. That is why we lost.”