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U.S. Champs Welcomed Home

The Conejo Valley Little League team returns after a failed try for the world title.

August 31, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Traveling in a manner befitting national champions, the Conejo Valley Little League All Stars returned to Thousand Oaks on Monday afternoon in a 35-foot, white limousine.

The team arrived from the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., where they won the U.S. title on Saturday but lost the international crown, 5-2, on Sunday to an imposing team from Curacao, an island off the coast of Venezuela.

After signing autographs and meeting the press at Los Angeles International Airport, the team had a quick lunch at a fast-food restaurant in West Los Angeles, then arrived home to a warm, yet modest, welcome.

"It was really, really nice," said pitcher Sean McIntyre, 12, of the limo ride.

"It feels great to know people have been paying attention to what you've been doing," said right fielder Cody Thomson, 12.

Thousand Oaks' real welcome home will take place Thursday evening.

The team, riding in convertibles accompanied by marching bands, will be the centerpiece of a parade on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, the city's main street.

On Monday, a handful of parents, neighbors and friends showed up to greet the boys at the home of Manager Tom Ginther.

Another Little League coach had left a handwritten banner on Ginther's fence that read: "U.S. Champs. #1 in the USA & #1 in our hearts. We are so proud of you. Way to go."

The youngsters went all the way in two months of post-season play to defeat Richmond, Texas, 4-0 on Saturday for the U.S. Little League title.

Their play was nearly flawless in five national games in Williamsport.

"Saturday was the big game to us," said Ginther, relaxing at his kitchen table. "We all went out there wanting to beat Texas bad."

But the team's international opponents from Willemstad, Curacao, proved too talented, handing Conejo Valley its first loss after 22 straight wins.

"We usually went into tournament games as an underdog. We went out and played our game and won," Ginther said. "Unfortunately, on Sunday, we made too many mistakes. We beat ourselves."

Three errors worked against Conejo Valley. Curacao, whose 5-foot-11 starting pitcher struck out 11 in five innings, jumped to a 3-0 lead.

Although weary and having two players fighting strep throat, Conejo Valley fought back in the sixth, when Adam Justiniano hit a two-run homer.

"We just came out flat in the first few innings," Sean McIntyre said. "We started to come back strong in the sixth, but it was just too late."

Sunday's starting pitcher, Jordan Brower, 13, said he was "sort of nervous" at the beginning of the game as he played before 34,000 spectators; a typical Little League game may draw 100.

"But by the last couple of outs in the second inning I started throwing strikes," Jordan said.

His father, Rick Brower, one of the team's coaches, put the overall experience into perspective. "Being second-best in the world is nothing to be ashamed of," he said.

The team has been invited to meet the players at upcoming Dodgers and Angels games, where they will be introduced to fans. They are also expected to appear on the ABC late-night show "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Conejo Valley was the first team from Southern California to take the U.S. title since South Mission Viejo won it in 1997.

A Moorpark team went to the Little League World Series in 1996, but that team was eliminated in three games.

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