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Lakewood Ranch Little League honors 1997 All-Star team

The 1997 Manatee East All-Stars receive a commemorative plaque, which will hang at Lakewood Ranch Little League's fields. The team reached the Little League World Series in Williamsport, getting eliminated in the semifinals.
The 1997 Manatee East All-Stars receive a commemorative plaque, which will hang at Lakewood Ranch Little League's fields. The team reached the Little League World Series in Williamsport, getting eliminated in the semifinals.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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In 1997, a group of Lakewood Ranch Little League kids beat the odds. 

According to the Little League parent organization, there were 2,993,760 Little Leaguers playing Majors-level ball — 9-12 years old — that year, across the globe. Only eight teams, consisting of 14 kids each, reached the sport's annual culmination: the Little League World Series, held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. That's approximately 0.0038% of all Little Leaguers in the world. 

Through talent and a bit of luck, the Lakewood Ranch group of All-Stars — known as the Manatee East All-Stars back then — became some of the lucky few. They battled through the South regional tournament to reach that point, including a squeaker against the Texas' representative in the regional final, then held tough in the World Series itself, reaching the semifinals before being eliminated by California. Ultimately, the squad representing Mexico won the whole thing. 

Getting to that point was an accomplishment all its own. The team is the only Manatee County team to reach the Little League World Series. 

On Feb. 24, as part of Lakewood Ranch Little League's opening day festivities — the league is in its 35th season — the organization honored the 1997 All-Stars, making sure current and future baseball players know what was accomplished.

Team members Rod Harper, Mike Cucci, Larry Cobb, Jon Cassidy, Brandon Noel, Trevor Blair, Scottie Ellis, and Ryan Kennedy, and Head Coach Mike Kennedy were on hand to be presented a commemorative plaque that will hang at the organization's fields. The plaque contains the names of all the 1997 team's players and coaches and recognizes the World Series appearance. 

Afterward, while current Little Leaguers played exhibition games, members of the 1997 team reminisced about their glory days. 

The common theme?

"Resilience," Blair said. "We had a 'never quit' attitude." 

Blair said the team found itself in a number of tough situations along its path to the World Series, none more heart-pounding than the aforementioned game against Texas. As recalled by Ryan Kennedy, a pitcher on the 1997 team and the former head baseball coach at Lakewood Ranch High, the team was down 2-0 going into the bottom of the sixth inning. Worse, they did not even have a hit. 

Three outs from elimination, the team rallied. 

The team's offense used small ball strategies to get on base and advance runners. Only a single by Joel Cocciolone left the infield, Kennedy said, but it scored Kennedy from third base. The game went into extra innings, and the kids from Lakewood Ranch eventually won 3-2 in 10 innings. 

"Our coaches put it into our heads that anything was possible," Blair said. "It took a while, but we got there. We believed it." 

Once in Williamsport, Ryan Kennedy said, things felt a bit different. The players did not get to see their parents much, he said, getting whisked from their hotels to the games with the supervision of their coaches. They played in front of a significantly bigger audience than they were used to having, especially in the second game of the three-game opening round, when the team played a squad from nearby Pottsville, Pennsylvania. In the stands were 35,000 people, which Kennedy said was at the time an LLWS record for a non-championship game. The Lakewood Ranch kids won 5-0. 

For kids who lived and breathed baseball, it felt like a dream. 

"You would walk from the fields to the dorms and you had people asking for your autograph," Kennedy said. "They treat you like big leaguers." 

That was one memory the players shared. Noel said some members of the team had not seen each other in a decade or longer, and that it was nice to reminisce. But as happy as the team members were to be there, they were just as enthusiastic in their wish that another team from Manatee County matches their feat. 

"I want the next generation to experience that stuff," Noel said. "You're 12 years old. You might only be going 1,000 miles away, but you're meeting kids from, potentially, anywhere in the world. I beat some from kids from Japan in ping pong. That was my favorite thing."

Come summer, another group of All-Stars will get their shot. Not just at Lakewood Ranch Little League, but at Braden River Little League and elsewhere in the county. The odds of reaching Williamsport are long, but someone has to go. It might as well be a Manatee County representative. 

For anyone who makes an All-Star team, take note of the lessons the 1997 team is giving. The road to Williamsport is long, and it is hard. There will be challenges. There will be times when you stare failure in the face. In those times, perseverance is a must. 

The rewards are multiple, trophies and medals among them. But the real treasure of going on such a journey is never forgetting it. No matter where you and your Little League teammates go next, you'll always have the memories of what you accomplished together. 

"I can't emphasize this enough: We were a family," Kennedy said. "We always picked each other up." 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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