Source: South Williamsport, Pa.
Date: Monday, Aug. 20, 2012
Seventeen thousand, three hundred and sixty.
That was the attendance count at Sunday's game between the West champions from Petaluma, Calif., and the Southeast champions from Goodlettsville, Tenn.
At the Little League World Series, it's a tradition for the announcers to broadcast the exact attendance present at each game.
However, it will definitely be off by one tonight.
Danny Smekens, the father of Cayden Smekens and former coach of these young men from the Great Lakes, may not be physically sitting in the stands of Lamade Stadium on Monday night as they take on the New England champions from Fairfield, Conn., but he will surely be there in spirit and mind as he watches from the grandstands.
Smekens was the coach of this team before he passed away from colon cancer in March, 2011, after battling cancer for almost six years. As he battled cancer, he continued to spend his time coaching the team while he went through chemotherapy and life-threatening surgeries to remove tumors from his body. Although the treatment made him ill and tired, he did not let his cancer stop him from doing what he loved, and during that time period,he and assistant coach Bret Mann led the 9- and-10-year-old teams to state championships, producing an 86-1 record along the way.
As time went on and the cancer progressed, he even began passing up chemotherapy sessions so that he was able to feel well enough to coach still.
It was Smekens' dream to take this team to the Little League World Series here in South Williamsport, but unfortunately, his battle with cancer ended in 2011 before he had the chance.
"We will be playing for Coach Danny tonight. He'll be watching from the grandstands."-- Great Lakes player Hunter McCubbins
As time went on, Smekens realized he was not going to make it through the 2011 baseball season, and before he passed away, he asked Mann, his best friend and assistant coach, to promise to see his dream through and get his team to South Williamsport. Mann and the other assistant coaches kept their promises, making their way to Little League World Series this year and are prouder than ever to have successfully fulfilled Smekens' dream.
"It's an honor for me to be here and have fulfilled Danny's dream," said coach Junior Hammond. "We wish he could be here with us but he can't."
"I just hope we make him proud," he added.
Hammond was an assistant coach to Smekens for three years before he passed away and that bond went beyond being just coaches on a field.
"It's like losing a brother," said Hammond. "It's something I'll never get over. He's always in my mind and heart and I've already thought of him five or six times this morning."
"I wear his baseball cap a lot in honor of him," he added.
Though Smekens is not here in person, his son Cayden and the team constantly think of their beloved coach they lost.
"The boys loved him," said Hammond. "He was a better person than a coach. He was a great guy."
Smekens will not be in person in the dugout, but his possessions, game strategy and philosophy he taught the kids will be.
"We hang his jersey and other memorabilia in the dugout to keep his spirit with us," said Hammond.
They also incorporate his memories into their pregame pep-talks.
When asked what Smekens' advice would be to the team going into Monday evening's game, Hammond replied, "The same thing he lived by: don't give up, give 100 percent every play and leave everything on the field whether you win or lose."
The team plans to do that tonight.
"I feel confident going into tonight," said player Hunter McCubbins. "We always bounce back and play good baseball."
Back home in New Castle, Ind., 19,000 people--the population of the small town--will be sporting memorial t-shirts Monday night as they watch their Little League team take on the boys from New England.
"The fans have been great," said Hammond. "There have been a lot of times where we've been down and they have rooted us on the whole time."
"Little League Baseball is very tight back home in New Castle," he added. "It really brings the community together."
The community in New Castle is fully behind the team, and many other fans from around the world and here in South Williamsport are rooting for them, as well.
Heading into Monday's night game, Hammond says the team needs to be mentally ready.
"We're pretty resilient," said Hammond. "We just have to be mentally tough tonight."
The Great Lakes know they have their work cut out for them tonight.
"New England is a great team. They have great coaching, pitching and hitting," said Hammond.
Because of this, Great Lakes hope to continue getting clutch hitting from Cayden Smekens, one of their best hitters.
There won't be a hit as clutch as the one he had back in the Indiana state semi-final though.
New Castle was playing against the No. 1 seed from Jeffersonville and the game was knotted in a tie and was reaching the three-hour mark. Cayden stepped to the plate with the bases loaded.
Mann, the third base coach, looked at Cayden and touched his chest where the memorial t-shirt he was wearing had "Smek" printed on it.
As the count reached 3-1, he suddenly stepped out of the box and pointed his bat to the sky.
Some of the attendees in the stands thought he was pulling a Babe Ruth and calling out his shot, but everyone from New Castle knew he was pointing to his father.
The very next pitched sailed over the fence.
After that, the New Castle Little League team continued their winning ways all the way through regionals where they captured the regional championship and earned a berth to the Little League World Series.
As they begin the elimination game Monday, thousands of people watching in South Williamsport will be joined by possibly millions of viewers tuning in via television, as well as one angel.
"We will be playing for Coach Danny tonight," said McCubbins. "He'll be watching from the grandstands."