SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) – Kaden Peifer and his Lewisberry, Pennsylvania teammates use the same word over and over when describing what it’s like to be playing two hours from home in front of 35,000 fans at the Little League World Series.
“Crazy,” the 12-year-old catcher said while taking a break Thursday from signing autographs outside Lamade Stadium.
“It’s just hard to believe that so many people are coming out just to see us,” he said.
About 40,000 people are expected on Saturday to watch undefeated Lewisberry take on Pearland, Texas for the United States championship. Officials say the crowd could challenge the stadium’s single-game record of 44,800 set in 2001. Fans are expected to fill the large hill behind the outfield fence, which is normally empty enough for younger fans to use as an alpine slide with cardboard sheets.
Pearland lost 3-0 to Lewisberry on Wednesday, but beat Bonita, California 9-7 in extra innings Thursday night to earn a rematch with the Pennsylvania team. The winner will play the international champion, either undefeated Tokyo or Mexicali Baja California, Mexico on Sunday for the World Series title.
Many believe the home-field advantage makes Lewisberry the favorite.
“Obviously it’s not easy to play before 35,000 people when 34,900 are rooting for Pennsylvania,” said Pearland manager Andrew Solomon.
And Pearland players said the fans were doing more than just rooting for Lewisberry, describing some of them as downright hostile. Thirteen-year-old Ben Gottfried said they sounded like “my mother when she’s mad.”
“They’re mean, they were really rude,” added pitcher/first baseman Zack Mack. “They complained a lot.”
But Peifer said playing in front of that crowd is not easy for the home team either. The 12- and 13-year-olds have tried to block out the distractions and just focus on baseball, he said. But, they know a Pennsylvania team has not won the World Series title since Levittown in 1960 or the U.S. title since Shippensburg in 1990.
“At some points, I think it can be a little harder on us, because the fans expect us to beat everybody,” Peifer said. “But we’re not going to mercy-rule every team.”
Their opponent hails from just outside Houston and has the advantage of getting to practice outside year-round. The Lewisberry players had to deal with about 40 inches of snow between November and March, according to the National Weather Service.
They stayed sharp, the players said, by going to an indoor baseball training facility owned by pitcher Cole Wagner’s uncle.
“We did a lot of batting practice, fielding practice, lifting and stuff,” said outfielder Jarrett Wisman. “We train a lot.”
Texas has been embracing the underdog role throughout the series. Solomon has said his team felt a bit slighted by the attention given to Pennsylvania and California, which hit 15 home runs in its five games here, but lost twice to Pearland.
“We have a really good team,” he said. “We might not hit the most home runs or have a kid that throws 82 mph, but we are a very good, fundamentally sound team.”
And while Texas doesn’t have the home field, it has plenty of motivation. This is the organization’s third trip to the Little League World Series in the last five years. In both 2010 and 2014, Pearland lost to the eventual U.S. champions.
Solomon, who sports long dreadlocks, has told his players that if they win the World Series this year, they can cut his hair.