Mid-summer in North County means two things: a packed Interstate 5 and a plucky Encinitas Little League All-Star squad playing somewhere, somehow.
ELL, which produces titles like Swami’s delivers sweet sets, is riding high again. In ELL’s 60th anniversary season, it’s toasting the old by doing something new.
For the first time in its celebrated history ELL’s Juniors are the Southern California champions. ELL is No. 1 among 335 teams of 13 and 14 year olds, quite a feat in this regional baseball hot bed.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ said ELL manager Chaz Gagne.
ELL, with Gagne pushing all the right buttons, was making headlines two years ago. Gagne’s Gang of 12s advanced to within one game of playing for a spot in the Little League World Series.
With six players from that team on this year’s Juniors, we wonder if one can see Williamsport, Pa. from Vancouver, Wash.
Maybe, if peeking east just right.
ELL is hanging in the Pacific Northwest this week at the Junior League Baseball Western Regional Tournament. It competes against Northern California’s Walnut Creek, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Hawaii to represent the West in the Junior World Series in Taylor, Mich., just outside of Detroit.
While ELL plays in the state of Washington others are in a state of denial if not tipping their caps to ELL. The teenagers are just the latest representatives of a six-decade strong youth baseball organization with some 500 players participating each year and a standard where fun and excellence join hand-in-hand.
Maybe Paul Ecke, the man whose hands worked the soil where the kids play, envisioned their greatness when donating the acreage off Saxony Road in the early 1960s.
Ecke had some kind of vision when relinquishing his flowers fields so they could become baseball diamonds, where kids grow as spectacularly as his iconic poinsettias.
Something’s taken root on ELL’s three fields surrounded by palm trees and offering an ocean view.
In the last five years, ELL has won 25 banners for winning a district, section, division or regional title.
In the previous 55 years, ELL had 10 banners.
It’s the players, of course, that deserve the credit.
But save a backslap for those donating life’s most precious resource: time.
It’s the volunteer work of the countless adults — guys like Gagne — that allows kids to be the best they want to be. Of those 25 banners in five years, Gagne’s teams have earned 11.
“He respects the league and the game so much that the kids feed off his positive energy and drive to succeed,’’ said Todd Sleet, a former ELL president. “He gets the most out of his players.’’
Guys like JP Kras, a dynamite outfielder and leadoff hitter batting around .700 during the postseason. There’s Wyley Sharp, a versatile player who runs the bases like his hair is on fire. He’s comfortable at shortstop, outfield and behind the plate. And Pete Gagne, the manager’s kid, who fired a three-hit shutout in the So Cal title game.
So these tenacious teenagers are keeping baseball alive this summer. While the Padres enter yet another rebuilding phase, ELL keeps expanding its trophy case, this year with the Juniors.
“It’s a scrappy team,’’ Gagne said with a grin. “And everyone has contributed to us getting here.’’
Want to chip in, too? While Little League Baseball pays the tab for the younger players’ postseason events, the Juniors are on their own. If you love baseball and kids doing it right, go to ellbaseball.org.
Our two cents? ELL continues to prove where flowers once bloomed, the land has produced another bumper crop to make the locals proud.
Contact Jay Paris at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at jparis_sports
This story has been corrected since its original posting.
Sportswriter Jay Paris has written his “Sports Talk” column since joining the Coast News in 2013.
Paris, a Cardiff resident, is a longtime Southern California writer, getting his start with the Orange County Register before coming to San Diego in 1992 to cover the Chargers.
He had the Chargers beat for more than two decades with Oceanside Blade-Citizen, the North County Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, before being named a sports columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Paris has won numerous awards voted on by his peers in the Pro Football Writers of America. He has also been a staple on countless media platforms, everything from the KPBS to MLB Network and various radio outlets.
Paris is also the author of three books, with his latest one being, “Shohei Ohtani: The Amazing Story Of Baseball’s Two-Way Japanese Superstar.” He has also written “Game Of My Life Chargers” and “Game Of My Life Rams.”
He currently covers the NFL in Los Angeles for Forbes. com and is a contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow Jay on Twitter @jparis_sports