SOLANA BEACH — Ten years ago, the 13 boys walked off of a San Bernardino baseball field for the last time, faces wet with tears.
The boys were members of the Solana Beach Little League All-Star team, a collection of 12-year-olds from the coastal communities of Solana Beach, Del Mar and Carmel Valley. They had just lost to a Chandler, Arizona, Little League team in a game to advance to the Little League World Series, the holy grail of accomplishments for a youth baseball player.
On Aug. 13, 10 years and three days after the loss, nine of the 13 boys stood together in a patio eating area at Fidel’s Little Mexico restaurant, faces full of smiles, a foot taller, some with facial hair and each with a beer in hand.
Their parents and coaches were there too, faces aged a decade, now looking up to the kids who they once had to bend down to console the day of their final defeat.
This was a reunion a decade in the making.
“It’s great,” said Evan Schreiber, a star pitcher on the squad. “It’s bringing back a lot of memories. I haven’t seen a lot of the guys in a while, and everyone looks a lot different, talks a lot different, but it still feels so familiar.
“It was a fun summer,” Schreiber said.
Coaches, parents, siblings and players — and even a former mayor — gathered at Fidel’s to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Solana Beach Little League team that made an improbable run to the Western Regional Finals — the last step before the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Along the way, they racked up district, section, sub-regional and regional championships.
The team lost in their final game — which was televised on ESPN2 — 7-3 to the Chandler Little League team that advanced to the semifinals of the World Series. That team was led by a slight kid with a big swing — current Dodgers star Cody Bellinger.
The families poured over memorabilia, and their manager gave each of the players certificates and pendants that he was supposed to give them a decade earlier, which got a laugh from the boys.
But more than celebrating the wins, they reminisced on the summer where the boys spent 40 days playing 25 baseball games, including the final two weeks in San Bernardino, which the boys spent sequestered from the families, bonding with coaches, fellow ball players and themselves.
“That was the best part, we were all good friends and the camaraderie we forged over that time together was amazing,” said Trevor Semerdjian, 23, whose father Dick organized the reunion. “We had a lot of fun.”
Fun and grit
Michael Thurston, who managed the team that included his son, Chad, remembered that time too. The boys slept in bunk beds and the coaches all shared a room. The team spent spare time going to the movies, swimming in the pool and meeting kids from all across the West Coast.
“It was the best summer I ever had,” Thurston said. “We made lifelong memories.”
For Thurston, he said the other thing that stands out about the run was the team’s grit. In three of the double-elimination rounds leading up the Western Regionals, the team lost its first game, meaning the boys would have to win two additional games to advance.
Each time, they came through.
“We went through districts undefeated, but from that point one, we took the hard road,” Thurston said.
The grit of the team was something that sticks in the mind of John Peabody, who was a brash 21-year-old free-agent ball player at the time brought on to help the kids with their hitting.
A Little League star in his own right as a 12-year-old in Cooperstown, New York, Peabody — now married with two children of his own — said he tried to bring some of the New York toughness to “a bunch of kids from Solana Beach.”
He didn’t have to try hard, said Peabody, who now runs a successful baseball training business that includes clientele such as Major League Baseball player Mickey Moniak.
“I’ll remember the toughness of this group, when they kept losing those first games, their ability not to buckle under pressure stood out to me,” Peabody said. “And that was surprising for a group of kids from Solana Beach.”
Looking into the eyes of his 5-year-old son, Wyatt, Peabody said the other thing he takes away from the journey is just how fast it goes by.
“Baseball is going to be important in our house, but I don’t want to forget to soak up these moments, because these kids, they grow up,” Peabody said. “Ten years ago feels like yesterday, and now these boys are all sitting and drinking beers with me.”
Thurston said in order to understand how special the Solana Beach’s team run was, you have to put it into perspective.
“These guys battled through the adversity, and I think part of it was the support from the community.”
Solana Beach and Del Mar are the two smallest cities in San Diego County, with less than 20,000 residents between the two enclaves. The Little League has 400 players, from tee-ball to juniors, which ends in eighth grade.
That makes the league and the region it serves one of the smallest in the Western region, which includes Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Montana.
And it must make it through Southern California’s notoriously rugged system to emerge to the Western Region playoffs.
“It took us 19 games to get to regions,” Thurston said. “It took the Hawaii team four. It took Arizona’s representative six or seven games.
“For a league that small to make it to the championship game is huge,” he said.
One of the keys, Thurston said, was the support from the community.
At their games in San Bernardino, which thousands of people attended, Thurston said that players could always look in the stands and see at least 500 fans decked in “The Beach” gear, cheering their hearts out.
“My in laws lived in downtown San Diego and would drive to San Bernardino every game,” Thurston said. “For the town, it was huge, and their support made it that much more special.”
The Solana Beach City Council even voted to pay for two charter buses to send family and supporters to each of the games in San Bernardino.
Joe Kellejian, who was deputy mayor at the time, is also the uncle of Trevor Semerdjian. He said he remembers telling then-City Manager David Ott that the visibility and publicity the city would get from the boy’s run would far outweigh the money the city would spend.
Consider it an investment, he said.
“No amount of money the city would spend or action it would take would do more to call attention to our city than what the boys were doing on the field,” Kellejian said. “It was personally one of the most rewarding experiences for me as an elected official.”
Former league president John Grant, who also attended the anniversary, echoed Kellejian’s sentiments.
“It truly became a community event,” Grant said. “My dream is that another Solana Beach team will replicate what these boys accomplished, but I know this was a special group. The coaches were special, the parents got along and pulled for each other, and this special group of kids has turned into a special group of men doing special things in life.”
Dick Semerdjian agreed with Grant that one of the things that made the run special was the camaraderie of the families. In an era where ego can divide sports families, these families embraced one another.
He fondly recalled the families renting cabins in Lake Arrowhead during the run to avoid the long, hot commutes from Solana Beach to San Bernardino for regional games.
“It was 75 degrees in in Lake Arrowhead, so when we could come down and everyone was complaining about how hot it was, we would all kind of just smile,” Semerdjian said. “We had a lot of fun.”
Semerdjian said having that type of chemistry made the summer special.
“We all knew we had something special,” Dick Semerdjian said. “It wasn’t just the kids; it was the parents. We became so close, it was a special time, no doubt. And you look now, and I’m not surprised at how special this group has become.”
The boys are now men, almost all recently graduated from their respective colleges and concluding baseball careers that in some cases started when they were 5 years old. The list of schools the boys have degrees from is impressive: Northwestern, Purdue, Ohio State, Washington State, the University of San Diego, San Francisco State and Cal State San Marcos, among others.
Some of them didn’t see much of each other following the town’s parade for the boys along Cedros Avenue.
But for some of them, it was like they hadn’t skipped a beat.
“We had been talking about having a reunion for at least five years, it’s kind of surreal to be honest,” said Max Kesselhaut, 22. He was one of the few on the team to stop playing baseball shortly after the team parted ways, due to injury.
“It’s just great to see that everyone is doing well, which doesn’t surprise me,” Kesselhaut said.
It also didn’t surprise Jackson Balla, the team’s youngest member, who said that seeing the boys brought a lot of childhood memories back to the front of his mind.
“I’ve played a lot of baseball since that last game, so I haven’t really thought about it too much, but they’re back there,” said Balla, who won CIF titles in baseball at Santa Fe Christian before playing collegiately at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Chapman University.
Daniel Reitzler, the long-haired pitcher who is now a chemist at a Mira Mesa biotechnology firm, said he was taken back to a simpler time.
A time when all that mattered was the nine guys on the diamond.
“When I think of it, I just remember being a bunch of kids having a great time,” he said. “It was cool that a lot of people followed us and took pride in what we accomplished, but I think for us, it was just us playing baseball. It’s something I won’t forget.”