Billings Little League team captures state’s imagination
BILLINGS – A young Montana team chasing its baseball dream has captured the hearts and imaginations of residents across the state.
As the Big Sky All-Stars Little League team prepares for a rematch with California in today’s U.S. Championship game at the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania, the folks back home are cheering them on and holding fundraisers to help their families with travel expenses.
Universal Athletics in Billings is selling team T-shirts for $10, with the proceeds going to the travel fund.
“We just wanted to do our part to help with traveling expenses because, as you know, these parents are probably in pretty deep with being in Pennsylvania (after traveling to San Bernardino, Calif., for the regional tournament), so we wanted to do our part, support them,” said Adam Brant of Universal Athletics.
Hooligan’s Sports Bar and the Vig Alehouse are collecting donations for the team from customers and will match every dollar collected. Sean Graves owns both businesses and his cousin, Dawson Smith, plays for the All-Stars.
During Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over California, the businesses raised more than $1,300, and he will continue raising money through the weekend.
“I’m pretty happy with what we’ve got already, and I expect a huge day on Saturday,” Graves said.
Buffalo Wild Wings is donating a percentage of its game-day sales to the Little League travel fund set up at First Interstate Bank. Marketing director Mike Bilanski said the restaurant raised more than $1,200 on Wednesday.
In Glasgow, Farm Equipment Sales and the city’s Babe Ruth baseball program are also raising money for the Big Sky All-Stars. The business kicked off the effort with a $500 donation and challenged other businesses and residents to contribute. League treasurer Stacie Rhoads said they had raised just over $1,000 by Thursday.
Folks in Billings will be able to gather together to watch today’s game at Petro Hall at Montana State University Billings. The game (noon PDT) will be televised by ABC.
Across the state, in Kalispell, folks will again gather at sports bars, hoping for more heroics from the Montana boys.
“The excitement is great. People are still talking about it,” said Chris Gillette, owner of Fatt Boys Bar & Grill. “We had a full bar, about 150 people,” watching Wednesday’s game. “We had kids here. It was a real family atmosphere.”
Longtime youth baseball coach Dan Johns of Kalispell also enjoyed the semifinal game. He said he is impressed with the Big Sky team’s ability to handle the pressure of playing in a national arena because they are the first Montana team to advance to the Little League World Series.
“This has been good for the sport and good for Montana,” Johns said. “It’s great for all youth sports and activities” because it shows what can be accomplished with teamwork.
Ronald Wingerter of Billings said the Big Sky All-Stars are “showing that the American dream does come true. They’ve played great baseball, they’ve brought a spark to town.”
Schoolmates of the players were thrilled when Ben Askelson hit a home run in the bottom of the seventh Wednesday to propel the Montana team to the title game.
Lewis and Clark Middle School student Maclean Turner said he was watching the game at Montana State University Billings and “we all went crazy when Ben hit that homer.”
Student David Holmes said he was excited for Askelson.
“I just felt great for him, I thought it was great for him to do that because you don’t get to see miracles that often,” Holmes said.
Principal Steve Pomroy said school staffers are already planning the boys’ homecoming, featuring an all-school ice cream social.
“We’ve been celebrating every day,” he said Thursday. “America loves the underdog, and we’ve been the underdog.”