SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, PA. >> It's not easy to advance to the Little League World Series. Bowling Green Eastern coach Scott Kelley knows that much.
It's tougher for him to think his players would battle through the Great Lakes Region for the second straight year and find themselves in position to win a title again. But here the Kentucky kids are with a roster dotted with veterans — an almost unattainable luxury.
"It's been a journey," Kelley said as his players ate an early dinner at a picnic Wednesday, hours before play begins in the 70th Little League World Series.
One that picks up where it left off last year for infielder Spencer Newman and pitchers Devin Obee and Carson Myers. All three were on the Bowling Green team that went 2-2 last year.
Now, they're the old guys who started last year and helped lead Bowling Green to a 3-0 romp through the Great Lakes Regional into the 16-team championship field in South Williamsport.
"Both Devin and Carson pitched last year," Kelley said. "That gives them that advantage of having been on the mound and in the spotlight in that situation. So that certainly helps. I think in terms of those three being leaders on the team, can kind of calm the nerves."
It also helps that their teammates already got a taste of playing inside Howard J. Lamade Stadium where the finals will be played on Aug. 28. Bowling Green beat Essexville, Michigan, in their regional final in a game that was moved 10 hours east to the championship stadium after bad weather forced the game's postponement in Indianapolis.
But the postponement may also have a negative effect. Bowling Green might have to rely on one of its veterans early, too as ace pitcher Isaiah Head will be unavailable after pitching Monday's game.
"He's throwing in the mid-70s, and throwing from three different angles and his offspeed has been pretty good," Kelley said. "And he's been accurate. His strike percentage has been 75 percent, so he's been lights out for us. We were going all out to win that game and not worry about Friday."
MORE THAN SPECTATORS NOW
Maine-Endwell, Mid-Atlantic champions from Endwell, New York, is the closest thing to a local team competing in the tournament.
Scott Rush's players know what it's like to be the local favorite, too. They've bonded with last year's runner-up, Red Land of Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, the team that ended Maine-Endwell's season a year ago. Red Land's players reached out to wish their regional rivals luck after Rush's players did the same last year.
Six Maine-Endwell players remain from last year's team that fell to Red Land.
"I think they've all dreamed about it since they've been five," Rush said. "They've come just about every year to watch games. They were one step from being here, so they were obviously hopeful to make it here again this year."
Chofu Little League coaches and players celebrated with strangers who helped them take their team pictures on Wednesday.
But the Tokyo team hopes to celebrate alone next weekend.
Manager Koji Yamashita smiled when reminded that Tokyo teams have won four of the last five Little League Series titles. He'd like to see his hard-hitting bunch rake home Japan's 11th championship a year after Kitasuna Little League beat Pennsylvania's ted Land 18-11 in the highest scoring final ever. Chofu looks like it has the talent to do so having averaged 14.25 runs per game while outscoring opponents 57-6 in their qualifying regional.
"I like that pace (winning four of last five)," Yamashita said through a translator. ""They have a long life after this but it is a nice experience for them. We do our best all the time."
TEXAS, CALIFORNIA LOOKING TO BREAK STREAKS
Teams from Pennsylvania, California and Texas have been the most represented U.S. states in the field but aside from Red Land's deep run last year, none have won a title since Ocean View-Huntingdon Beach did so in 2011.
Park View from Chula Vista, which won it all in 2009, will try to end that after advancing from the West Regional. Southwest Regional champion McAllister Park American out of San Antonio will try to end Texas' 50-year championship drought.
NEW AND FAMILIAR TEAMS
Like Maine-Endwell, six other teams are making their LLWS debuts. First-time participants in the U.S. bracket include Johnston, Iowa; Warwick North, Rhode Island; and Bend North, Oregon. In the international bracket teams making their debuts are East Seoul, South Korea; Hills, Sydney, Australia; and San Nicolas, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
Goodlettsville, Tennessee, qualified for the first time since making a finals appearance in 2012 while Vancouver, British Columbia; Willemstad, Curacao; Emilia Italy; and Aguadulce, Panama have all appeared before.
LOWER AGE CUTOFF
Older players won't be able to play in Little League's showcase event much longer. The league announced last fall it would move its age determination date from Dec. 31 to Aug. 31 for all its baseball divisions. It means this is the first of the last two years 13-year-olds will be eligible.