SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — Carlos Cespedes crossed home plate with his arms raised in celebration, drawing a roar of approval from the crowd that packed Volunteer Stadium on Saturday morning at the Little League Baseball World Series.
Cespedes was the last player to bat for Hazleton’s Challenger Division squad, which took on a team from Evansville, Indiana, in an exhibition game that garnered as much attention from players who would be competing later Saturday as from friends and family who packed the grandstands and decked out in red and white for Hazleton’s team.
He closed out the game with a base-clearing single.
For Cespedes and his teammates, it was a dream come true.
“It was just great,” Cespedes said after the game as he exchanged high-fives and handshakes with his teammates.
The Hazleton team’s appearance at the Little League Baseball World Series was years in the making, said Hazleton Little League President Ed Shoepe.
“This is one of the greatest things any Little League can have happen,” Shoepe said. “This is the dream for the kids.”
Shoepe said the experience is not one that parents, players and local league officials will forget.
“From leaving Hazleton, with the send-off from the community, this was a great experience,” Shoepe said. “It’s very humbling.”
The invitation to play in this year’s Challenger Division exhibition is reason enough to cheer, as Shoepe said teams from Hazleton and Indiana were selected out of a pool of 950 teams from 10 countries.
“That in itself says something,” Shoepe said.
A Challenger Division team has been active in Hazleton since 1992, and Shoepe said Saturday’s appearance in Williamsport was the result of a years-long phone call and letter-writing campaign by local Little League representatives.
Shoepe said he knew Hazleton’s team made the cut six weeks before he was allowed to talk about it.
Reality didn’t set in until he stepped on the field.
Both teams gave the crowd plenty of reasons to cheer.
During the roughly hour-long exhibition, the teams took turns batting and fielding.
Every player had a chance to hit the ball and run the bases.
Some of the players waved to the crowd before batting while others called their shots, or pointed bats to where they planned to hit the ball. Some weren’t afraid to get dirty, as they slid into home plate.
Joann Mamourian, whose 9-year-old daughter, Lexi, played Saturday for Hazleton, couldn’t say enough for the atmosphere and welcoming environment in Williamsport.
“I’m actually a little speechless,” Mamourian said. “It’s breathtaking.”
Mamourian said Lexi was reluctant to take the field until she saw herself on the video display at the stadium.
“It took a little coaxing but … it turned out to be great,” she said.
Even after the game ended, Mamourian called the experience surreal.
“For years, I watched the games on TV and now we’re here,” she said with a smile.
John Evancho, of Sugarloaf Twp., who was on field working with his son, Brett, said his son was so excited to make the team that he asked his father to call the coach to make sure he didn’t lose his roster spot after missing one practice.
Brett, who has been playing baseball for at least 10 years, said his favorite experience was sharing the field with his teammates.
“My favorite thing is being out here with a group of people,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
The game began with Hazleton’s team lining up along the first base line and the Highland Baseball Club, Evansville, lining up on the third base line for presentation of medals and the national anthem.
Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero presented medals, threw the ceremonial first pitch and served as third base coach.
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