SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — Hunter Nepple’s game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning had Nebraska’s cheering section screaming and stomping their feet at Lamade Stadium.
Hawaii’s 3-0 lead had evaporated with one swing, but its fans were eager to respond once pitcher Micah Bennett got the team from Honolulu out of the inning. Nebraska’s and Hawaii’s sections of the ballpark took turns belting out hometown cheers, an impromptu who-can-be-loudest contest in a game that wound up as an 11-3 Hawaii victory in seven innings Sunday.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Little League World Series games have only had a few hundred family and friends in the stands this year. Turns out they were the ones making a lot of the noise in the first place.
“Even with the smaller crowds, it really hasn’t diminished our experience at all,” said Stan Budarz, father of Jacob Budarz of the Connecticut team. “You can generate a lot of energy and the way the acoustics are in the stands, I think it sounds pretty loud even though it’s not the hugest crowd.”
The reduced capacity crowds permitted at Volunteer and Lamade Stadiums have created an intimate experience for everyone involved.
Scott Stier was in attendance supporting Florida’s team, since his 13-year-old son aged out of their Little League but is still best friends with one of the players. Stier thinks the more relaxed atmosphere could help some of the more shy participants.
“It’s a tough burden to carry for them,” Stier said. “I think it turned out to be maybe a blessing in disguise if they felt a little uncomfortable.”
While these 12-year-olds are still appearing on nationally televised ESPN broadcasts, they’re doing so in a more familiar and relatable setting. Stier pointed out how the opening days of the LLWS have been reminiscent of hometown Little League games.
Hawaii manager Brandon Sardinha noted how capacity restrictions also were in place during both the Hawaii state tournament and the West Regional in San Bernardino, California.
“If there were a lot more fans out there, it could be a distraction,” Sardinha said. “Throughout this process from our state tournament to regionals, it’s been kind of limited, so that’s what they’re used to. I think they’re comfortable with what it is now.”
Nonetheless, longtime Little League World Series fan Erin Smith of nearby Hughesville definitely noticed a dip in energy at the ballpark this year. She got a section pass since her dad volunteers at the stadiums.
Not to mention, embarrassing moments like a dad moaning when his child strikes out or bobbles a ball are now much easier for all to hear.
Nebraska manager Dustin Rader, whose Hastings Little League squad is just the second team from the Cornhusker state to ever make it to the world series, said he and his players “don’t know any different” than competing with little more than family and friends on hand.
And for Rader, the experience of being in South Williamsport rather than enduring another season without Little League baseball like in 2020 is more than enough to get excited about.
“I don’t know if playing in front of the world or playing in front of 30,000 in person is much different. It’s all a new experience,” he said. “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. That’s kind of how we’ve lived this whole trip. It would have been nice to see those stands packed, but man, it’s a lot better than last year.”
Andrew Destin is a sports journalism student at Penn State.
Andrew Destin, The Associated Press