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That magical season: Remembering the Keystone Little League's amazing run

by on August 22, 2013 11:02 AM

For one magical week back in August of 2011, a bunch of 11- and 12-year-old Little Leaguers from just outside of Lock Haven, captured the imagination of sports fans in central Pennsylvania and around the country — if not the world.

The Keystone Little League team, located less than a half-hour from the site of the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, battled its way to the Pennsylvania state championship, through the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships held in Connecticut, and into 2011 Little League World Series.

The Keystone players became the sensations of the tournament. They played five intense games in front of what could only be called a raucous home-town crowd unashamedly rooting for its team. They lost their first game, 1-0, fought through the loser’s bracket with three consecutive victories, and were on the doorstep of playing for the American Championship when they fell to the eventual World Champion from Huntington Beach, California, 2-0.

Keystone finished that season 21-3. It won the state championship, Mid-Atlantic regional championship, made it to the American semi-finals, and finished as one of the top six teams in the world.

In the five games at the World Series, Keystone played before a total of more than 160,000 people. The 42,000 people who packed Lamade Stadium for the opening night game against North Oldham, Kentucky, comprised the largest crowd in Little League World Series history. It was also the second-biggest crowd to watch a baseball game that night, behind only the sellout at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

I had the good fortune to be at the World Series for all of the Keystone games, covering them as a reporter for the Centre Daily Times, and when I saw a 2013 game on TV last night, I thought it would be fun to look back on that year and those kids from Beech Creek.

After sweeping through the Mid-Atlantic regionals, the Keystone players arrived home to a parade, signs of support along the roads, and rising excitement about their upcoming opener in the World Series.

That first game was on Friday, Aug. 19, and the bank behind the outfield wall at Lamade Stadium began filling up three hours before the scheduled start of the Keystone-North Oldham contest.

By the time the game began, there wasn’t a spot to be had, and tournament officials estimated the crowd to be 42,000. Many people who were there, including those in the press corps, thought that number should have been much higher.

To the dismay of all those Keystone fans, the game was dominated by North Oldham pitcher Griffin McClarty, who not only pitched a 12-strikeout, complete game shutout, but accounted for the only run in the game with a first-inning home run.

Keystone had its chances, but it ran into bad luck as North Oldham made two terrific defensive plays to nab runners at home plate.

In the fifth, Keystone’s Wyatt Koch was thrown out trying to score on a ground out, and then in the sixth Tyler McCloskey was nailed trying to score on an overthrow at first base.

“There’s no shame in losing a game 1-0,” Keystone coach Bill Garbrick said. “We had chances to score the tying run or even the winning run, but we didn’t get it done. But tomorrow is another day, and we’ll come out and play our game.”

Now facing a much more difficult road through the loser’s bracket, Keystone did come out and play its game. In fact, the Mid-Atlantic champs did it three times in a row.

Next up, on Saturday night with another giant crowd looking on, were the New England champs from Cumberland, Rhode Island. This time it was the Keystone pitchers who threw the shutout as Alex Garbrick (Bill’s son) and closer McCloskey combined to shut down New England, 2-0.

Keystone scored a run in the first inning, and then gave McCloskey a big insurance run in the fifth inning on Koch’s RBI single that McCloskey made stand up for the win.

On Monday, it was Louisiana before an announced crowd of 29,000. This game, the Pennsylvania champs brought out their bats as they coasted, 10-0, in four innings against the Southwest champions.

“They were definitely hitting the ball tonight,” coach Bill Garbrick said. “You could see it. They were seeing the ball well.”

In what amounted to the American quarter-finals on Tuesday, Keystone survived with a thrilling, 7-5 victory over the Southeast champions from Warner Robins, Georgia.

And they advanced again.

Keystone gave up three runs early, took the lead back, and then held on through two major threats from Georgia to take home the win and advance to the next level against California.

By this time, the Keystone run was front-page news in papers across the state and beyond.

Lemade Stadium was mobbed again with 32,000 people for the Keystone-California showdown on Thursday evening. But just as in opening night, Keystone was silenced again by a premier pitcher—this time California’s Hagen Danner. Danner struck out 12 in five shutout innings and then gave way to closer Braydon Salzman in the 2-0 win that put the West champs into the American final against Montana.

Keystone had chances — it put runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings—but Danner and Salzman were up to the challenges.

“We are a good hitting team,” Bill Garbrick said after the loss, “and it takes a really, really good pitcher to hold us down. That’s what we saw tonight in Danner.”

The loss eliminated Keystone, and sent California on its way to the World Series championship with victories over Montana and then Japan.

For Keystone, the team’s accomplishments would not fully dawn on the players that night, but Garbrick knew that eventually they would.

“There are some tears in there (the locker room),” he said, “but they will go away soon. They will realize what this experience meant, and they will get over this loss in a hurry. They always do.”

After the series, the Keystone players were welcomed and congratulated around the state for their amazing march into the upper levels of the World Series. There were trips to Citizens Bank, Beaver Stadium, and PNC Park in Pittsburgh to name a few.

In the two years since, no other Pennsylvania team has advanced to the World Series — or even come close — which is a testament to how difficult and impressive the performance by those Beech Creek kids really was.

Pat Rothdeutsch covers Penn State football for The Centre County Gazette. Email him at [email protected]
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