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Local little leaguers enjoy magical ride

September 01, 2010 | 08:32 AM
Lyons Township — With Japan's 4-1 victory over Hawaii Sunday in the championship game of the Little League World Series, 12- and 13-year-olds around the world hung up their cleats, gloves, hats and uniforms one last time before next summer. But did you know a local team almost made it that far?

The Burlington Little League 12-year-olds recently enjoyed a magical ride where they advanced all the way to the Regional tournament in Indianapolis, a mere two games from the Little League World Series.

The special squad was the first in 51 years to win the state tournament, and it wasn't limited to kids from Burlington. There also was some Walworth County flavor.

Houston Cowan, 12, Lyons Township, and Cal Sanfelippo, 13, Spring Prairie Township, both played integral roles in the team's success. The squad's last game was Aug. 18 against Moline, Ill., in the Regional semifinals. Sanfelippo started at pitcher, and it was Cowan's three-run blast that cut Burlington's lead to 6-5. However, Moline ended up hanging on for the 6-2 win and eliminating Burlington.

Houston was surprised that he pulled his home run to left.

"I was just hoping for a base hit considering the high level of competition," he said. "I usually don't pull the ball. My coach, Steve Spitzer, said he almost cried because he was so happy I pulled the ball. I didn't see it until I watched the game at my grandparents' house. Watching the homer was pretty cool."

Cal admitted he had a rough outing on the mound.

"I was really wild," he said. "I walked quite a few batters, and I was really nervous. It didn't help that it was like 100 degrees out. But we were all really excited after Houston's home run."

The young players became local rock stars, with a parade through downtown Burlington and plenty of generous donations from local businesses. Suzanne, Houston's mother, is a teacher at Lyons Center School.

"After we won the state title," she said. "They had to talk with us about where we could walk and what we could do once we got down to Indianapolis. There was a lot of security. But it wasn't a concern at all."

The boys spent six days in dorms down in Indianapolis, watching some of the best talent in the nation. And the families grew closer than ever.

"Our families have spent a lot of time together," Suzanne said. "They are just a nice group of kids, and the parents are just good people. It was a nice experience. We all joke that we should spend Christmas together."

Before the regionals, which televised two Burlington games live on ESPN2, Burlington steamrolled through the state tournament, defeating a team from Eau Claire, 11-5, after starting out 6-0. Cal said it wasn't even close, and Burlington nearly won the district championship, the round before state, by slaughter rule. From top to bottom, Burlington's lineup could hit home runs and everyone could pitch.

Also, for the first time, the two city teams were combined, making this talented squad the best 15 kids from Burlington.

A team from Ohio, who beat Burlington badly, advanced to the Little League World Series. Houston said he heard that Ohio team has gone 121-4 over the last three years, so the competition was awesome.

"Ohio deserved it," Suzanne said. "But when the guys weren't playing, they made friends with each other. There was no animosity."

Houston and Cal both raved about the facilities and experience in Indianapolis. The boys were treated to an outdoor pool, tennis courts, ping pong tables and the best food this side of the Mississippi.

"The food was awesome," Houston said. "My favorite was lasagna and twice-baked potatoes. I had like five of those."

"We texted people about how much Houston was eating every day," Suzanne said.

Burlington finished with a respectable 2-3 record, disposing of Michigan and Indiana but losing to Illinois twice and Ohio.

Both Houston and Cal loved being with their teammates for the wild journey.

"I loved being with my friends for a whole week," Houston said. "I also enjoyed meeting other players and all the great pitching we got to see."

The boys commended the work of their coaches, especially the specialized help from Spitzer, a long-time Burlington coach. Spitzer helped Houston improve his batting stance, and he helped Cal with his pitching delivery.

But it was what he did at practice that the boys will never forget.

"For about 45 minutes after every practice, coach Spitzer would go over situations like the infield fly rule," Cal said. "Other coaches would yell that it's dinner time and we needed to go, but Spitzer would just keep on coaching."

It's now on to seventh grade at Karcher Middle School for Houston and eighth for Cal, who is home-schooled. When high school comes around, Houston will attend Burlington and Cal is headed to Burlington Catholic Central.

Houston thinks the 12-year-olds can go back to regionals next year, too.

"I hope the boys win state at least," he said. "I don't want us to be the only team that won it from now on."

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