Little League heroes not so little anymore - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Little League heroes not so little anymore

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Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009 6:33 pm | Updated: 2:17 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

It's been six years since a group of seventh-graders from Chandler hit rock star status. Just don't call them one-hit wonders, because they're still swinging.

SLIDESHOW: 2003 Chandler Little League team, then and now

It's been six years since a group of seventh-graders from Chandler hit rock star status.

Just don't call them one-hit wonders, because they're still swinging.

SLIDESHOW: 2003 Chandler Little League team, then and now

It was in 2003 when the Chandler National Little League baseball team captivated the Valley, advanced to the Little League World Series and came within a game of reaching the U.S. championship.

They were the fourth team ever - and the first since the mid-1980s - to qualify from Arizona and make it to Williamsport, Pa.

When they got home, it was a hero's welcome. Firefighters shot water over their plane at the airport, strangers yelled their names and media outlets rushed over for interviews.

"It was crazy," Tyler Kem said. "We were stars."

Justin Rosales even remembers signing autographs. Hopefully the Anderson Junior High seventh-grader knew cursive.

"It kind of felt like we were the Diamondbacks," he said.

The 12 players from that team are almost all high school seniors now, scattered across three cities.

Six of them - Kem, Rosales, Trent Hardenburg, Aaron Hardenburg, Cory Bernard and Tim Fowler - are at Chandler Hamilton. Three - Jared McLaughlin, Matt Potter and Michael Benjamin - are at Chandler Basha. Eddie Malone is at Queen Creek, Trever Benjamin is at Mesa Skyline and Markus Kalber is at Chandler.

Rosales was the only one who altered his plans after the games, transferring to Bogle Junior High in eighth grade so he could attend Hamilton with the five others.

For the most part, the players went on their way.

"We haven't really even talked about (the experience)," Malone said. "It's just a thing to remember."

Together, they made a run that had the state buzzing. Now, they're trying to lead their respective teams to state titles.

The Hamilton players accomplished the feat last season.

Bernard, in 2003 the 5-foot-1 dynamo who hit three home runs in one game, said even the state title game couldn't compare to playing in front of 20,000-plus spectators and a nationwide TV audience.

"We have big games now, but I really don't get nervous," he said.

Not surprisingly, many of the players are the focal points of their team.

Rosales is batting .459 with six homers. Fowler is hitting .414 with six homers and 30 RBIs. Bernard is hitting .353 and has a 2.35 ERA on the mound. Malone is hitting .337 with seven homers.

Many plan on continuing their career collegiately. Michael Benjamin, the only junior in the group, is also Basha's quarterback and hasn't decided which sport to pursue.

Bernard said the experience gained as Little Leaguers has been invaluable for their careers.

But even with the ESPN highlights, the large crowds and the general hoopla surrounding the event, the players didn't realize how major of a story they had become.

"We never even realized it, even when we were there, of how big it was getting," McLaughlin said. "We should have taken the hint, though, when Mike Benjamin made a diving catch and made SportsCenter's top plays. We were in the condos in Williamsport, and it's like, 'That was you.' It was just crazy."

Benjamin remembers it clearly.

"It was a pop fly down the left field line, behind third base," he said. "I just laid out for it and was able to make the catch."

With so much going on nowadays - there's this season's final run and baseball futures to worry about - there isn't much reminiscing.

"It's pretty much behind us," Fowler said. "Once the Little League World Series gets going, we'll talk about it a little, maybe flip on a game or two."

But there haven't been any reunions, and since Basha and Hamilton haven't played each other recently in baseball, the two biggest factions of the team haven't run into each other on the field.

And while the players have gone their separate ways, there is always going to be a sense of pride in what they accomplished.

In 2007, another Chandler Little League team made it to Williamsport. The 2003 version was happy for their younger counterparts and rooted them on.

For awhile, at least.

"Part of us were like, 'Go win it all,'" McLaughlin said with a laugh. "But then a part of us is like, 'Well, don't get farther than us.' That's just our competitive nature."

"I was proud of them ... but that's the only thing I didn't want," Rosales said. "Them to go farther than us."

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