There was certainly not going to be any packing it in.
Not even though they were trailing by four against a team that had only allowed three runs in 22 tournament innings, and even having just six outs left to work with.
No, with its season on the line, the Coon Rapids/Andover Little League 12-year-old All-Stars didn’t pack it in - they stepped up.
A three-run top of the fifth inning cut the deficit to 5-4 heading to the final frame. Then, a four-run sixth followed, with Jameson Kuznia crushing a three-run homer to center to deliver the decisive blow in an 8-6 Coon Rapids/Andover (Team Minnesota) win over Team Iowa in the Midwest Regional championship in Westfield, Ind. Aug. 10.
Now, the team is packing up, heading for the dream destination of Williamsport, Pa. and the Little League World Series Aug. 15-25.
“Still hard to even put into words,” Team Minnesota coach Jason Law said. “It really hasn’t sunken in yet. This group of kids has worked very hard together striving towards the dream of making it to Williamsport. It probably really won’t sink in until we are back home and have a chance to rewatch some games, decompress and relax. But for now, we are riding the high and going to give it our best shot at the Little League World Series.”
The title game began with a flurry, as Coon Rapids/Andover took a quick 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning on an RBI double by Drew Law bringing home Jaxon Knutson. Iowa answered immediately, however, blasting a pair of homers in building a 5-1 lead after two innings.
The score held there through the fourth thanks in large part to Carson Timm, who turned in a dominant relief effort, but with the Coon Rapids/Andover bats still struggling to manufacture runs against the Iowa staff.
Nonetheless, the feeling remained that it could manage a rally – it just needed an inning, or two, to click.
“We knew that we were not out of the game at that point,” coach Law said. “We left a lot of runners on base through the first half of the game, just couldn’t get the clutch hit we needed. The coaches talked to the kids about staying positive, reminding them that this game isn’t over until the final out, and they listened. We had numerous innings in the state and regional tournaments where we put up crooked numbers, so we knew if we could keep it close we had a chance to bust out.”
Cayden Alphin led off the top of the fifth with a walk, then promptly scored on a triple by Knutson. Law singled home Knutson, then Wyatt Myers later delivered a two-out double to bring around Tyler Phillips to cut the deficit to a run.
In the top of the sixth, Timm and Alphin hit back-to-back one-out singles and Knutson drew a walk, loading the bases with one out. Law hit a sharp grounder to the second baseman that could have been a game-ending double play, but sprinted up the line to beat out a fielder’s choice and allow pinch runner Jack Brandl to score the tying run.
It didn’t stay tied for long, as Kuznia powered a 1-1 offering over the center-field fence, setting off a frenzy in the Coon Rapids/Andover dugout as it had an 8-5 lead to take to the final half inning.
“In a word ‘WOW!’ That was an inning the players, coaches and fans will never forget,” coach Law said. “The pitcher that was in the game for Iowa we faced early in the tournament and we hit the ball hard off him, but the ball just didn’t fall. This time, it did. We did a great job working some counts deep, fouling off pitches and getting runners on base. Once we tied the game up at 5, the kids were jacked up. Putting three more runs up on the board then was huge. The sixth inning had contributions from numerous players. Obviously the big blow everyone will remember was Jameson Kuznia’s home run.”
Still, despite having gone from being potentially down to its final three outs of the season to three runs ahead in the top of the sixth, Coon Rapids/Andover needed to settle back down in order to navigate through the bottom of the sixth and secure the title.
Team Iowa made things interesting, using a string of walks to bring in a run and load the bases with two outs. But Knutson secured the final out with a strikeout for the save, setting off the championship celebration.
“The players were riding high going into the bottom of the sixth,” coach Law said. “The coaches had to talk them down a little bit and remind them the game was not over yet, we needed to take one out at a time. We didn’t make it easy on ourselves in the bottom of the sixth, but that was just better drama for the ESPN telecast!”
Coon Rapids/Andover opened the tournament with a 15-7 win over Team Nebraska Aug. 3, then topped Team South Dakota 8-4 Aug. 4. Team Iowa edged Coon Rapids/Andover 3-1 in their first meeting Aug. 8, but Coon Rapids/Andover bounced back with a convincing 9-0 shutout over Team Missouri Aug. 9, setting up the dramatic championship game rematch with Team Iowa.
“We played great,” coach Law said. “Every team that was in the Midwest Regional was a state champion. We stuck to our game plan and what got us here. We are a very disciplined team at the plate. In tournaments, where pitch counts are a huge factor, working counts is a major part of the game plan. We pride ourselves on getting runners on base and taking a ‘win each inning’ approach. We came through with some clutch hits, played amazing defense, were aggressive on the base paths and we pitched very well. This is a very balanced team - we can win with speed, defense, pitching or hitting.”
The Coon Rapids/Andover Little League program has set the standard for the state in recent seasons. Now, it will be the first team from Minnesota to head to the Little League World Series since 2010.
“The support we’ve had from back home has been amazing,” coach Law said. “In today’s digital age, there’s blogs, predictions, texts, emails, Facebook and Instagram, then replays of highlights on ESPN, and even local media coverage. Our league has been in Indianapolis for the Midwest Regionals four years in a row.
“The success is from the amazing Little League program we have at Coon Rapids/Andover American Little League. It’s a family atmosphere at our complex at Sand Creek Park. Every day of summer you’ll find kids of all ages playing baseball from age 4 to 12 on five different fields. Family and friends make it a destination to watch kids playing the game they love. On any given night you’ll find people who’s kids are already out of the league just showing up to watch baseball and be a part of the atmosphere. Our fields are top notch and our grounds crew does a great job; we think we have one of the nicest Little League complexes in Minnesota. The continued success is due to involved and passionate board members, dedicated coaches, but most importantly passionate players who love to play the game. There is a lot of hard work that this group of kids put in to get where they are today. They’ve earned this. They deserve it! Being the first team from Minnesota to be in Williamsport since 2010 is amazing. We know we have the support of the whole state behind us. We told the kids when we won the state tournament, we are no longer just CRALL, we are now ‘Team Minnesota.’ We will do our best to make Minnesota proud - keep up the support and well wishes, it’s much appreciated!”
The pause in play for the team will be brief, as it heads directly from the regional in Indiana to Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series. Coon Rapids/Andover opens against the Great Lakes Regional champion Thursday, Aug. 15.
“Honestly, our main goal as coaches is for the players to soak up the experience and most importantly, have fun,” coach Law said. “We think we have the pieces on this team to make some noise. We knew we had a very good chance to make it to Williamsport if we played our game and got a few breaks. You never know what you might run into playing against all state champions, but we knew we deserved to be at the Midwest Regional. As far as a prediction for how we will fare at the Little League World Series? I guess you’ll have to tune into ESPN on Thursday to find out!”