PLEASANT HILL — Oh, so close.
The Ottumwa Little League baseball team had a trip to the state championship game right in front of them. Trailing Grandview in the sixth inning, 5-3, back-to-back hits by Samantha Weeks and Dylan Forney brought the winning run to the plate, giving Ottumwa the chance with one swing to extend their season.
Two strike outs and a fly out to right, however, left Ottumwa one run short of completing a comeback. Grandview, the defending state champions and the Midwest region's Little League World Series representative, held on for a 5-4 win that clinched the final spot in the 2019 Iowa State Little League state baseball championship game.
Coming that close, and falling just short of a trip to the finals, could have devastated a lot of teams. Yet within an hour after the loss, members of the Ottumwa Little League baseball team were enjoying some time in Doanes Park sharing jokes and trying stunts off a swing set while sharing the same smiles many players had back in late April when opening day arrived.
"We've played at such a high level for four years. The chemistry is always there," Ottumwa Little League manager T.J. Heller. "We come from a small town in Iowa and we're up here playing against some of the major metro cities in the state. We're in with the best of the best and we competed with every single team."
While they may not have made it to the championship game, the fact that Ottumwa Little League was so close to playing for the title shows how far the program has come in a short amount of time. Less than two years after agreeing to merge the town's National and Midwest Little Leagues, Ottumwa swept the 10 and 12-year-old district titles without losing a game and picked up wins over some of the best programs in Iowa over the past week.
Ottumwa's 10-year-old squad finished 2-3 in their state tournament after a tough 12-11 loss to Indianola in Urbandale. The two programs combined for five wins in 10 state tournament games, each playing deep into postseason play with both having an opportunity to play in the state finals.
"It's been a long summer. There are a lot of these kids that not only play Little League all summer, but also play travel baseball," Ottumwa 10-year-old manager and Indian Hills athletic director Brett Monaghan said. "They're playing two to three games a week either at the Midwest field or out at Bridge View, but they might also be playing four to five games on a Saturday and a Sunday somewhere out of town.
"We've got a group that might be a little worn down by the end of the summer, but they're doing a pretty good job sticking with us."
Last year, Ottumwa Little League finished third in the 10-year-old state tournament. This year, another third-place finish coming from the 12-year-old squad finishing just two wins shy of qualifying for the Midwest regional tournament in Indiana, where a trip to the Little League World Series is on the line. The future indeed looks bright moving forward for Ottumwa Little League baseball.
"The whole idea when the leagues came together was to create a better baseball environment," Heller said. "You want the kids to play the game together. At the end of the day, these kids are going to play together growing up through Babe Ruth and on into high school. The ultimate goal is to continue bringing the leagues together, continue to grow that chemistry and continue to represent Ottumwa the best way we can."