Mike Conrad remembers the wait most of all.
The members of the 2005 Lafayette Little League team that he coached were doing the things that 11- and 12-year-old boys do. The fact that the biggest moment of their young lives — opening play in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in front of a national television audience — was hours away was not a big deal. The fact that they were representing the Acadiana area as the first team to advance that far wasn’t a second thought.
For the coaches, and the parents, it was another story.
“The toughest part is the time you spend before your first game there,” says Conrad, the head coach of the 2005 Lafayette team that reached the U.S. semifinals and provided an ultimate feel-good period for Acadiana. “It was hard to keep the kids grounded and focused … you want them to enjoy themselves, but you want them to stay focused on why we were there.
“For kids at that age, you put them in front of 20,000 people and the television cameras, and I don’t think they even feel it. All they see is two white lines and a team wearing another color jersey in the other dugout, and they go play baseball. Not just my team … I don’t think any of the teams there are fazed by the crowd, the media, anything. I think that’s what made it so much fun, that we could really sense that.”
Conrad is one of the few who can give perspective to what’s going on in Williamsport right now, with this year’s edition of Lafayette Little League having advanced through local and state tournaments, winning the Southwest Regional and making the World Series trip this week. The local team begins play Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN against Southeast Region winner Warner Robins, Ga.
“It’s exciting for me, and I know it’s exciting for them,” Conrad says. “I’m happy for [Lafayette coach] Leland [Padgett] and those kids. I’ve told so many people that going there, it’s a place that if you’re any kind of baseball fan at any age, the purest part of the game is that age group. The World Series is one of those places that you have to go to once if you’re a fan … it’s like a baseball paradise.”
“I went to Leland’s house Saturday night [after the team returned from winning the Waco, Texas, regional[ and we talked for about an hour. I remembered how much all the kids, especially the kids from other countries, loved the Mardi Gras beads, and I brought a box full.”
The 2011 Lafayette team has been exploring the paradise of the expansive Little League compound since Sunday evening, learning their way around the complex that includes dorms, cafeteria, game rooms, pool, ball fields … and the opportunity to hang out with kids from the other 15 teams from around the U.S. and the world.
The compound is aptly named because it is a tightly secured area with manned gates and video monitoring — no one in except players and coaches, and that includes parents. Players can’t leave unless they’re accompanied to the gate and signed out by a coach. Everyone else stays in nearby hotels. You won’t see that complex area on television, but it’s for a good reason … if I was sending my child there, I’d want to know he was safe and secure.
In part because of that security, Conrad imparted to Padgett one prized bit of local information: a refuge that Conrad, his assistant coaches and I discovered not far from the Little League compound, a local hole-in-the-wall famous for its diet-busting offerings and cold adult beverages.
“I told him, most importantly, you had to go to the Mountaineer,” Conrad says. “I know he went, because he said on the phone last night that it was a long walk back up the hill to the parks.”
There won’t be as much time for outside activities from here on, with the local team playing at least three games over the next five days.
“They [the group in Williamsport] don’t see all that’s going on here, just like we didn’t when we went,” Conrad said. “All the people that are excited about them, all the support, all the attention, and they deserve it. It’s a great group.”
In a listing of team members in Thursday’s Daily Advertiser, one of the notes on each was picking their favorite player from the 2005 team — a group that played when the current team members were all of six and seven years old. And they knew the names.
“The city needs to be proud of that group,” Conrad says of his team. “Tyler Douglas is at LSUE, Andrew Stevenson’s headed to LSU, Jace (son Jace Conrad) will be playing at UL this year and (younger brother) Brynn is being recruited right now; Ryan Bergeron’s going to UL Monroe, Sammy Scofield is playing football at Tulane.
“Andreas Duplantis is going to LSU and is already a world-class pole vaulter. Jordan Romero caught in two state championship games. A couple of them have played for state soccer championships. It goes on and on … so many of them have been successful on and off the field. I’ve talked to some of them and they’re very excited for this year’s group.”