A victory with lessons for a lifetime

Courtesy photo The SoCal Hawks and coaches celebrate at Patton Field in famed Cooperstown, New York after pulling off a miracle. Players include #1 Justin Hall, #2 Carson Hammond, #3 Jackson Beck, #4 Derek Chastain, #5 Drew Mapanao, #7 Landon Stepanoff, #8 Hud Pease, #11 Logan Hall, #19 LJ Smith, #21 Tyler Kaufman and #33 GJett Jenkins. Coaches included Matt Hammond, Ben Stepanoff, Morgan Beck and Geoff Hall.

Playing in the shadow of baseball’s most hallowed ground, near the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, an unheralded group of local 12-year-olds showed the world how to win.

By committing themselves to a total team effort, the upstart SoCal Hawks surprised 56 other teams from around the USA and Canada to play themselves into a league of their own.

On July 22, the SoCal Hawks became champions of Week 8 of the five-day All-Star Village 12 and under tournament, creating their own field of dreams.

“It was mind-blowing,” said coach Matt Hammond. “There were 57 teams, and we knew they were good,” he said, adding that “and we were not one of the favorites.”

While their four-day Cinderella run will remain legendary in the anuals of tournament play, the way the Hawks won and how they got there makes for a story suitable for a Hallmark movie.

“What’s most rewarding as a coach,” said Hammond, “was that when we won this championship, we were not the most talented team, but as I told our boys, ‘we were the best team.’”

Hammond said the players banded together in 2021 after COVID began to break. He’s coached some of these boys for five years and knew they were seeking to play ball again.
Even then, in 2021, the players knew they wanted to make the trip to the All-Star Village this year.

Hammond said his players are mostly from Los Alamitos and Cypress, yet there are also a couple of players from Garden Grove and Long Beach.

Courtesy photo
The team opens a lemonade stand in Rossmoor to raise money for the trip. (L-R) Drew Mapanao, Derek Chastain, Carson Hammond, Hud Pease

This tournament is not the Little League World Series, he said, which is also played near Cooperstown, but a well-known event that draws teams and players from around the world.
To get there, however, could cost about $20,000 for the team, etc., so they began raising money. They did chores and created old-fashioned lemonade stands and other activities to raise their goal of $20,000.

Hammond said Rossmoor was one of the places where they opened a lemonade stand to begin raising money.

“At one point, a dad walked up [to the lemonade stand] and when he found out why we were raising money, he told the boys about his trip to Cooperstown with his son five years ago.”

“He gave the boys a $100 bill and walked off,” said Hammond.
As it turned out, the boys ended up raising $23,000 with lemonade stands and selling snacks, so last month the SoCal Hawks and their families headed across the country to Cooperstown.

Courtesy photo Logan Hall (C) and LJ Smith (P) mid game

Once in the All-Star Village, players are housed in little cabins with bunks near Oneonta, N.Y., near Cooperstown, where they stay for a week, the coach said.

Hammond said the boys consider the excursion a baseball camp of sorts, and there are several activities besides baseball, including swimming in a pool shaped as a baseball glove and trading pins with other players.

Hammond said he and the other coaches, including Ben Stepanoff, Morgan Beck and Geoff Hall, all knew the team had heart, but he said they also knew the Hawks were simply not the most talented team in the tourney.

Yet, he said, they created a secret weapon.

“Our whole goal, all year, was preaching teamwork, teamwork, teamwork,” said Hammond. “This is not a team of one individual, but a team. If one player strikes out or makes an error, the next person will pick you up.”

That’s exactly what happened. According to the notes of Vicky Hammond, the coach’s wife, here’s how their amazing run went down.

Week 8 of the tournament featured 57 teams from across the United States and Canada. The SoCal Hawks, made up of players from Los Alamitos, Garden Grove, Cypress and Long Beach, went 5-1-1 in pool play, including a 4-3 win against the Rough Riders of Orange County on a grand slam walk-off by Logan Hall. The come-from-behind win earned the team the 12th seed heading into the championship rounds.

Courtesy photo Derek Chastain slides back to first in Hawks semifinal win versus the Bombers.

Elimination brackets began with a 10-2 win over the Rawlings Toledo (Ohio) Tigers who had previously granted the Hawks their only loss in the early rounds. The victory advanced the Hawks into the final day of competition, which began early on July 22 as the team defeated the Jackson Bears of Ohio 6-4 in the Round of 16.

Those wins were followed by a 4-1 win over a local rival, the OC Hawks of Placentia, Calif. Tyler Kaufman threw six innings and tallied thirteen strikeouts, while Jackson Beck led with a solo home run to propel the team into the semifinals.

Despite a national tournament field, it was an all-California showcase in the Final Four. With L. J. Smith on the mound, the SoCal Hawks shocked the SoCal Bombers Black with a 21-6 semifinal win. The victory featured eighteen Hawks hits, including home runs by Kaufman and Jett Jenkins, and doubles by Hud Pease and Justin Hall.

This set up the team for a chance to win, but to do so, they would have to navigate through an impossible path that would involve four victories in a single day.

“And you know, to relive my last day, we had to win four games, and we were underdogs in three of them,” said Coach Hammond.

The evening championship game matched the SoCal Hawks against the Whittier Bandits in a live-streamed match-up with bleachers full of fellow players and fans.

While the Bandits struck first with an early solo home run, the Hawks stormed back to knock out four home runs of their own thanks to Logan Hall, Drew Mapanao and another two by Kaufman.

In total, the Hawks tallied twelve hits, with singles from Carson Hammond, Landon Stepanoff, Jenkins, Pease, Smith and Derek Chastain. Stepanoff pitched a complete game allowing only seven hits and tallying six strikeouts.

The final score, Hawks 7, Bandits 2, and the Cinderella team SoCal Hawks proudly took their place at home plate at Patton Field in Cooperstown as they were named Champions with a trophy nearly as tall as some of the 12-year-old players.

“It’s not only that we won,” said Hammond, “it was the way we won. Every single player on our team contributed to our victories,” he said.

“The fact that you know, everybody contributed, player one through eleven was quite frankly, what made it the most rewarding,” he said.

Not only that, but Coach Hammond said the team’s sportsmanship brought them pride as well.

Hammond said one of the Hawks hit a screaming line drive between third and shortstop which was miraculously caught by the opposing 3rd baseman.

“Our kid did not mope,” the coach said, “but he actually ran onto the field and gave the opposing player a high-five,” said Hammond, “which was pretty cool.”

The miraculous run of the Hawks was not lost on All-Star Tournament Director John McIlwain.

“I had no idea who the Hawks were when you arrived,” McIlwain said. “I heard nothing from you, your parents, or your coaches while you were here, but I will never forget you now,” he announced.

Nor was the victory lost on the players, all of whom are now back in middle school.
“When I went to Cooperstown, it was awesome,” said Grand Slam slugger Logan Hall.

Coach Hammond calls timeout and offers a word of encouragement. Courtesy photo

“Meeting all the teams from different states was probably one of the best things there. Camel City was a team from North Carolina, and we became really good friends. They were really big supporters in the championship,” the Oak Middle School 8th grader said.

“The teamwork was really good. We were supportive of each other and did really well. Whenever someone would hit a homer, everyone would get super excited for the hitter, regardless of the score,” he said.

For Drew Mapanao, a 7th grader at Oak, “Cooperstown was a dream come true.”
“My ABSOLUTE most favorite thing about Cooperstown was hanging out with my teammates,” said Mapanao.

“Together, we made memories we will never forget. We watched the MLB Home Run Derby in our bunks, played video games together, and played wiffle ball, cap baseball, and football. We slept in the same room for six nights and ate all of our meals together,” said.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wish I could relive every second of that week. I will never forget Cooperstown,” he said.

Tyler Kaufman, another middle schooler, said “we played some hard teams, and we weren’t sure we would win. Then, we just played better than we ever have before. Cooperstown is a memory I will never forget. It was amazing.”

When these 12-year-olds remember Cooperstown, it seems the impression of the experience will leave them with a memory of what they did together, as a team.
Stories of shared success, crediting others, and humble championships seem rare today. But for a team whose coaches insisted on “teamwork, teamwork, teamwork,” the trophy seems well earned.

What they accomplished together in 2022 will perhaps last longer than the shining glow on the huge, gleaming trophy they brought home from Cooperstown. Not only was it a validation of a dream, but also a demonstration of a community that believed enough in them to donate a significant sum to get them to Cooperstown in the first place.

While the gleam of their championship trophy will perhaps one-day fade, the memories, and lessons about life they took home from their shared experience could indeed last a lifetime.

A victory with lessons for a lifetime