With the game tied in the last inning, El Segundo’s leading home run hitter Louis Lappe had a good feeling as he stepped to the plate.
“I just knew it was gone even before the ball hit the bat,” Lappe said shortly after knocking the ball clear across the left field wall to win the Little League World Series on Sunday against Pabao Little League of Willemstad, Curacao, in Williamsport, Pa.
In El Segundo, hundreds of fans who had jammed into downtown’s Rock & Brews sports bar to watch the game on big-screen TVs erupted in cheers, high-fived one another and sang “We Are the Champions” as the popular anthem blasted from the bar’s speakers. They continued the celebration in the streets as others poured out of neighboring bars and restaurants.
“This was such an amazing experience, and I feel like their win is a win for all of us,” said Nicole Alpert, 18, who sported a pink and white baseball cap with the phrase “Raising Gundo.” “It’s been so lively around town, to believe in them, to believe in each other. It’s all so positive.”
The El Segundo 12U All Stars’ battle to the top galvanized the small Southern California beachside community, known as “Mayberry by the Sea,” and captivated the rest of the region’s sports world. Well wishes for the team — whose players’ ages ranged from 10 to 12 — poured in ahead of the game from some of the Dodgers’ and Lakers’ biggest stars, including Mookie Betts and LeBron James.
El Segundo had to win five consecutive elimination games to become the first team from California to capture the world title since Huntington Beach Ocean View in 2011. It is the eighth Little League World Series title won by a California team.
“Now I can get emotional,” El Segundo manager Danny Boehle said tearing up after the game as his son, Quinn, who is on the team, bear-hugged him from behind. “We finally made it. That was our mission to do it with my son and all these boys.”
For most of the game, a title seemed within reach for El Segundo, but in the fifth inning Curacao rallied with a dramatic two-out grand slam to tie the game at 5-5.
Back in El Segundo the crowds tensed up.
Middle School cheerleader Abby Smith gasped as she watched the opposing team’s grand slam.
She had been waving her golden pompoms waiting to celebrate the final out at Rock & Brews in what was a nearly perfect effort from the hometown team.
The play silenced the crowd until after the top of the sixth — the final inning — when El Segundo finally had their last chance to clinch it.
Smith and her contingent of 15 cheerleaders perked up and began chanting, “Let’s go, Gundo!” The mood lifted. The crowd came to life and began to echo as the cheering could be heard on neighboring Main Street.
On the second pitch, Lappe hit the ball out of the park.
Smith jumped onto the wooden tables at Rock & Brews with fellow cheerleaders and formed a cheer line as the clapping and hollering echoed through the building.
Fans began whooping, hollering and singing.
“I’m in school with every single one of them,” Smith said proudly. “I can’t believe I’m seeing them now.”
The team had fought off elimination in four consecutive games, gaining the U.S. title and reaching the Little League World Series. In the process of winning, Little League fever spread back home as many gathered to watch the team on a national broadcast.
It was the first time a Los Angeles County team won in three decades since Long Beach took the title.
When asked by an announcer what it meant, Boehle was said, “Baseball is coming back to El Segundo.”
Along Franklin Avenue and Main Street, drivers honked as the crowd from Rock & Brews spilled onto the street. Dozens broke out into “We Are the Champions,” and some on the street waved small American flags.
There were overflow crowds at Standard Station Sports Bar & Grill and the Tavern on Main as residents celebrated and sported gear representing the city. Hats, shirts and banners featured an iteration of the city’s name, with the most popular being “Gundo.”
“They’re such a good group of boys and not just baseball players, but good people and great students,” said Danielle Hoppe, nearly tearing up.
She was among hundreds who had gathered at nearby George Brett Field, named after the city’s greatest baseball alumnus, to watch the game on a large screen set up by the city’s parks department.
She and six other teachers from Center Street School watched the game from beach chairs and throw blankets.
“Go Gundo” and “Get em El Segundo” read banners at the park. Fans across the city wore the team’s powder blue, yellow and white colors as they gathered at watch parties across the city.
“I consider myself lucky, I think we all do, to have this group represent us,” Hoppe said.
The 37-year-old grew up in El Segundo and taught many of the players in the same fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms that she grew up in. The bond felt deep.
“They are this city’s team, and I connected with the team not just because I taught them but because I literally sat in the same seats that they did,” she said.
All around the city, the pride could be felt.
“All these kids know each other, and it seems like one big extended family amongst all these families,” said Jamin Griffiths, 50, president of El Segundo Little League, who was also at the park.
“They’ve all played with each other or had brothers on the team,” Griffiths said. “Being in a small town, this city gets on board and supports each other.”
City Councilmember Carol Pirsztuk said her phone had been ringing nonstop as the team advanced.
“I understand some of the pressure that these kids are undergoing, and they’ve done a remarkable job,” Pirsztuk said. “What shouldn’t be lost is the job of the coaches who have valued mental health and have always remained positive. That’s key,” she said.
Going into the series, El Segundo was considered one of the favorites among the 10 teams from the United States. There are also 10 international teams.
“We don’t do showboating,” Boehle told The Times. “They’re not allowed to. Once the mission is accomplished, yes.”
He took some advice from former USC and NFL quarterback Matt Cassel, who played in the 1994 Little League World Series with Northridge — the last time a Los Angeles County team played for the world championship.
“He said the key to winning is making sure the kids are having fun,” Boehle told The Times earlier.
The families of Little League players have created a GoFundMe account to help pay for expenses. While the coaches and players are covered, families that have been traveling with their sons since June are seeking financial aid.
The city will host a parade for the squad on Sept. 10 at noon on Main Street. El Segundo Mayor Drew Boyles was in Williamsport to support the squad..
“I don’t know if you find this support in other cities,” Councilman Ryan Baldino said. “It’s something else.”
Quinn Boehle agreed. The team is special, he told a reporter from the field after winning.
“We all grew up together. We have known each other for years, and we just keep winning and playing our best and play as a family.”
City News Service contributed to this report.