WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Taylor North Little League’s Ethan Van Belle lived like a wild man throughout the championship game of the Little League World Series, loading the bases in two of his three innings on timely hits by Hamilton (Ohio)’s West Side Little League squad. Despite the struggles, though, Van Belle always had an answer.
Ohio loaded the bases in both the first and third inning to no avail, and Taylor North Little League capitalized off a big first inning to claim a 5-2 win, giving Michigan its first LLWS championship since Hamtramck won it all in 1959.
It all started back in Taylor.
“I had some of the kids and other coaches had kids and we decided to bring them together for a travel tournament,” Taylor North manager Rick Thorning said. “We got the boys together and they played really well. We decided to bring these guys together. They’ve been practicing and playing together so long they were able to come together and do something special.”
THE ROAD TO THE TITLE
THE FINAL:Michigan’s Taylor North mows down Ohio, 5-2
THE REMATCH:Michigan beats Hawaii, 2-1, advances to championship
THE OPENER:Michigan shuts out Florida, 8-0, to open Williamsport run
But back to Williamsport, where the title run — despite a 3-0 lead after the first inning — was far from easy.
Van Belle found himself in a difficult position as he battled through control issues in the top of the first. He walked two batters and gave up a single to another to load the bases with just one out. Thorning could see the concern on Van Belle’s face, quickly calling a mound visit.
Thorning calmly talked to his pitcher, patting his back and reassuring him.
Van Belle recorded a flyball out to short before a strikeout ended the inning without any runs scored.
The top of the second didn’t go much smoother. Van Belle opened by giving up a triple to Chase Moak, who scored on the next at-bat when Cooper Clay drove a single into left field. But again, Van Belle was able to pitch his way out of trouble with a popout to right followed by back-to-back strikeouts.
And then came the third inning: Ohio’s Chance Retherford and Gavin Saylor (pinch-hitting for catcher Noah Davidson) opened the inning with consecutive singles. Maddox Jones then walked on four pitches to load the bases for Ohio.
Once again, Van Belle rose to the challenge, getting two more strikeouts, though he was helped out of the inning by a mental error by Ohio. As Moak struck out for the second out of the inning, Retherford — thinking it was the third out of the inning — jogged toward the Ohio dugout. Catcher Cameron Thorning fired to Jackson Surma at third, who tagged Retherford for the actual third out.
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In his final inning, however, Van Belle finally had an easy time, fanning the side to reach the Little League pitch limit of 85 on the nose in the fourth.
“The key was just battling and hitting spots,” Rick Thorning said. “We didn’t have our A game today, but luckily the skill and athleticism got us through one today. We’ll take that. It’s a very difficult sport to play.”
With their ace finished for the day, Taylor North elected to go with Gavin Ulin, who set up the win for Taylor North.
Ulin became something of a cult sensation during the two weeks in Williamsport, both for his mullet haircut and his lawnmowing service. During the game, ESPN aired a taped interview with Ulin describing his fledging lawn mowing business, where he charges $35-40 per lawn.
“I cut lawns in my spare time,” he said. “I got 10 lawns a week. … I like that cash.”
Taking over the mowing business while Ulin was in Williamsport was his grandpa, who made it to the Series for the title game and his own interview with ESPN.
Ulin’s outing opened with exactly what a pro lawn mower hates to see: Plenty of rocks, as Ohio quickly put two on with one out with a single and a walk.
But Ulin got some help from his defense, as shortstop Lucas Farner fielded a grounder from Jones and fired to Van Belle (now at second base), who relayed the ball to first base; the 6-4-3 double play ended a threat from Ohio.
“It feels great, I never thought I would make it here,” Ulin said. “There’s a lot of emotions right now.”
Taylor North added insurance in the fifth when Farner and Ulin connected for back-to-back singles. Both runners then scored on Surma’s second hit of the day.
The crowd then chanted Surma’s name for nearly 30 seconds, celebrating the two runs. The third baseman finished with four of Taylor’s five RBIs, having driven in two in the first on a single (though he took second base on the throw, advanced to third on a wild pitch and came around to score).
Ohio wasn’t done yet, however.
With one out in the sixth, and Taylor leading 5-1, Ulin hit Moak and walked Tyler Donges. Ulin came back with a strikeout, but then plunked Kaleb Harden to load the bases. A rattled Ulin then walked JJ Vogel on four pitches to make it a 5-2 game and bring the third inning’s scapegoat to the plate in Retherford.
But Retherford swung on Ulin’s first pitch, lofting a high fly to Jakob Farkas in center field. Farkas squeezed his glove around the ball, clinching a lifetime a memories for Taylor North.
“We are getting ready to celebrate with a lot of very important people tonight,” Rick Thorning said. “As a coach and a father and parent, it hasn’t kicked in yet. The emotions haven’t kicked in, but when I get around everybody, I think they will.”
They’re already planning the party back in Taylor; the city has a parade planned for 6 p.m. Thursday.
Free Press sports writers Marlowe Alter and Ryan Ford contributed to this report.
All-Great Lakes showdown, Part II
Most fans of the Series would safely assume Sunday’s game between regional rivals Michigan and Ohio was the first all-Great Lakes contest played at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport. But no. In 2016, bad weather wiped out the end of the Great Lakes regional championship between Michigan and Kentucky. Both teams were forced to bus to Williamsport to finish the game. Kentucky ended up winning, for a berth in the Little League World Series, and would advance to the U.S. bracket semifinals before losing.