Making It to the Little League World Series

Hamilton’s West Side Little League All-Stars made history by becoming the first Ohio team ever to reach the championship game of the Little League World Series.

On August 29, 2021, Hamilton’s West Side Little League All-Stars made history by becoming the first Ohio team ever to reach the championship game of the Little League World Series. No international teams were allowed to play, so the top two little league teams from every U.S. region attended, and West Side came in second in the Great Lakes region—as West Side’s 2021 All-Star manager Ken Coomer says, “You can only play with the cards you’re dealt.” And play the West Siders did.

Illustration by Gustavo Magalhaes

The final game was an emotional roller coaster. West Side scored once in the top of the second and had the bases loaded multiple times, but ultimately lost, 5–2, to a team from Taylor, Michigan. Turns out, though, there’s a whole lot more to West Side’s World Series story than that. Off-base Vegas oddsmakers, last minute injuries, and some pretty intense COVID quarantines aside, the tale of West Side’s Little League World Series bid is rooted in a remarkably successful 70-year-old Hamilton-based baseball program whose all-star teams have won the state tournament for something like 10 out of the last 14 years, says Coomer. “There are no bandwagons when it comes to West Side Little League,” notes Hamilton Vice Mayor Michael Ryan (himself a West Side alum). “You’re born a West Side fan and you follow the team, win or lose.”

It’s almost impossible to discuss West Side Little League without first mentioning Ray Nichting, a local baseball hero who passed away in November. Once upon a time (in 1952—the same year the West Side program began), Roger Bacon alum Nichting was a professional baseball player, playing for the minor-league Fitzgerald Pioneers. His promising career abruptly ended when he was drafted to fight in the Korean War. Offered the chance to play baseball for the Armed Forces team, he chose instead to fight and subsequently lost his leg in a grenade attack at the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Nichting was awarded two purple hearts, a silver star, a bronze star, and the Korean Service Medal, then came home to marry his high school sweetheart, start a family, work, and, in 1954, begin a 45-year-long side gig as a Little League baseball coach, which ultimately led him to the West Side program. There, he touched likely thousands of lives as a coach and mentor.

He was coaching for West Side in 1985, in fact, when the organization began international play by joining up with the Little League World Series program. (Nichting coached his team to the regional finals that year.) He also became the first West Side coach to field a team in the Little League World Series, taking All-Star teams there in 1991 and 1993. (West Side also sent teams in 2007 and 2010.) But Nichting’s most impactful legacy as far as 2021’s West Side All-Star team goes involves 48-year-old manager Ken Coomer. Not only did “I grow up through West Side Little League,” says Coomer, who played from ages 7–12 and joined the coaching staff when he turned 21, he also calls “the late, great Ray Nichting” and his son, Tim, mentors. “They’ve been involved with the league forever,” he adds, and West Side, in turn, has “just kinda always been a part of my life.”

When Coomer was elected by West Side’s board and fellow coaches to manage the 2021 All-Star team, comprised of West Side’s top players—13 12-year-olds and one 11-year-old—he had no way of knowing how things would go. Almost no one, especially not the Vegas oddsmakers, thought West Side’s 2021 All-Stars could make it as far as they did. After the games, in fact, “my buddy showed us our odds to win,” says Coomer, laughing. “We had the worst odds. If I was a gambling man, I guess I should have bet on us.”

The West Side All-Stars also had stringent COVID regulations to contend with. After a week quarantined together in an Indianapolis hotel for the regionals, the coaches and team all had to quarantine together for another two weeks in a gated dorm in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, says Coomer. “They had security guards everywhere. The only time we were allowed outside of the gate was to walk down to practice or a game.”

In addition, everyone—kids and coaches alike—had to get tested for COVID every other day. One positive test would have meant the end of the road. Plus, the players’ families were not allowed to be anywhere near them over the whole three weeks. They were allowed to cheer for them in the stands and do their laundry, says Coomer, but that was it. “You can only imagine what the kids went through, the parents went through, and the coaches went through,” he adds. In hindsight, he says, “It could have gone two ways. It could have got really bad.” Thankfully, he says, “our kids united. For being together that long crammed in a small space—they all jelled [and] were able to just concentrate on baseball.”

By far the biggest challenge was a major last-minute position change that Coomer and assistant coaches Chris Craft and Danny Adams had to make after the state tournament, when Levi Smith, the team’s No. 2 pitcher, was sidelined with a season-ending injury. There were other pitchers behind him in the lineup, but he’d also been the team’s best shortstop, so the coaches had to put Cooper Clay, a utility player who’d never played shortstop before, at the position.

Add it all up, and “we didn’t really have any expectations,” says Coomer. “We just thought we’ll work hard and see where that takes us.” Turns out, it took them pretty far. The fill-in shortstop “did a phenomenal job and made a couple highlights on ESPN,” says Coomer. Plus, the whole team’s “chemistry was a good fit—we didn’t have one player you depend on all the time. It was different kids stepping up every time.” When all was said and done, one of Coomer’s favorite parts of the championship day was watching the boys’ faces light up as they walked into Williamsport’s World Series stadium for the first time—something neither team was allowed to do until an hour before the actual game. “It was just like they thought they were in the major leagues,” says Coomer. “It was pretty cool.”

The game was by no means a blowout—“We definitely knew we were the underdog and we competed with Michigan,” says Coomer—but what stuck out to Hamilton fans the world over (yes, they apparently have a letter-writing fan in Australia) was the way the West Side team treated their opponents. When a Michigan player made a nice play, one of the West Side players tipped his hat in recognition, says Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller, who attended the Williamsport game. (The same thing has happened in multiple games, says Coomer.) And, without any prompting from their coaches, “when the last out ended, our kids actually stood up and clapped for the Michigan team, [then] went over and shook their hands and gave them a little players hug,” says Coomer, who still gets emotional just thinking about it. “When I saw that I was pretty proud.

“I’ve been coaching for 27 years,” he adds. “This is probably the most enjoyable I’ve seen kids play. Don’t get me wrong—there’s pressure: you’re on TV, there’s ESPN. But the kids were able to look past all of that and have fun, and I think that contributed to a lot of our success.”

The other remarkable part of this Little League World Series story concerns the fans—not just the few in Williamsport, where the normal crowd of 25,000 was reduced to roughly 500, but the ones back home in Hamilton.

Four days after the big game, the city of Hamilton hosted a parade, starting at the West Side Little League baseball fields. Each team member and coach got to ride in his own Corvette, waving to fans along the route. “They closed the main street down that led to Marcum Park in downtown Hamilton, where the amphitheater is,” says Coomer. “It was just flooded with people. It was so cool to see the kids treated like rock stars. The fan support from our town—it wasn’t fake either. You can tell when something’s real. Everybody smiled, everybody was just so happy.”

The mayor, city council members, and the Sheriff (among others) spoke in the amphitheater. Highlights from the game played on a projection screen overhead. “All the people who were watching the parade came down and filled up the amphitheater lawn and watched,” says Coomer. “It was just something you never forget.”

After the World Series, he adds, “players I coached a couple years ago came up to me and said: ‘Oh, our team was way better than that team!’ I say: ‘Hey, but you didn’t win! You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have the chemistry, that’s how it is sometimes.’ ”

Besides, says vice mayor Ryan, West Side’s 2021 season was a pretty good parallel to what Hamilton is all about: “resiliency, hard work, grit, and the willingness to never give up and never give in.” Odds are, Ray Nichting couldn’t have said it better himself.

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