About a month ago, Sam Mills, the head coach of the Marana Little League junior softball All-Star team, handed out postcards to all 12 members of his squad. They featured images from the state of Washington, site of the Junior League Softball World Series.
He asked his players to write messages to themselves as if they already had won the West Region tournament — about plays and memories they had made, about how excited they were to be in Kirkland for the World Series.
“Put it up in your bathroom,” Mills told the girls. “Look at it every day. Touch it every day.”
The gesture helped instill an unwavering sense of belief in Marana’s players.
“They just embraced that,” Mills said. “ ‘We are gonna make it.’ ”
Then they went out and did it.
Marana won the West Region tournament with a pair of victories Wednesday night at Arthur Pack Regional Park, punching its ticket to the World Series. Pool play begins Sunday, with the championship set for Saturday, Aug. 5. Almost every game will be streamed on ESPN+.
Marana’s traveling party of 16 — 12 players, three coaches and one “team advocate,” aka Team Mom — landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Thursday afternoon. They can now send those postcards home from their dream destination.
“I can’t believe that 24 hours ago we were yet to play that second game, and here we are already checked in in Seattle and part of the experience,” Mills said from his hotel room in Kirkland on Thursday night. “It’s a surreal-type moment.”
His team never stopped believing in itself. On the second day of the West Region tournament, Marana lost 10-5 to Magnolia Little League of Seattle. One more defeat, and Marana would be out.
“As you looked in the faces of all the girls, every single one of them was like, ‘We got this,’ ” Mills said. “It was just a belief. As a coach, you can sense that and feel it.”
Marana, the tournament host, proceeded to win five consecutive elimination games, including a 2-1 nail-biter over Alaska and two victories in the championship round over the Magnolia squad that had defeated Marana on Day 2.
“The buildup to those championship games, something that the team had worked so hard in preparation for, the goal of winning and advancing to the Little League World Series, the dream those girls had becoming a reality — it was just an incredible moment to share with those young ladies, to see the smiles on their faces,” Mills said. “It was pretty awesome.”
Although Tucson has a tradition of excellence in youth baseball and softball, it’s rare for a team from the area to advance to an international Little League World Series.
Starting with Tucson Cactus in 1973, Southern Arizona has had five World Series champions and three runners-up. Mills’ team is the first from Marana Little League, in baseball or softball, to make a World Series and the first from District 5 (which covers the northern half of Tucson) since Pusch Ridge’s junior softball team won it all in 2008.
“It’s definitely a significant accomplishment,” said Carl Thompson, the administrator for District 5 and chairman of Arizona State Little League. “We’ve had a very good year for Southern Arizona. It is a rare occurrence for a Tucson team to get that far.”
Two Tucson baseball teams, Randolph (juniors) and Canyon View (12U), are playing in West Region tournaments this upcoming week.
While Marana’s run to the World Series was uncommon, it was no accident.
Marana participated in the West Region tournament last year with mostly the same team — 10 of 12 players returned this year — and won a pair of games before being eliminated. Not bad for a squad consisting primarily of 13-year-olds.
At that point, Mills huddled with assistant coach Chris Beck to discuss the next steps. They zeroed in on one question: “What do we need to do to get better?”
Many of the girls had played together since 2019, but the coaches believed they needed more reps against quality opponents. So they decided to form a club team.
“We went out and performed well in the club world and came back to Little League to give it that one last run,” Mills said. “Our goal (was) to get to the World Series. That was part of the process.”
The West Region tournament came down to a rematch vs. Seattle Magnolia. After Marana won the first game 16-5, weather caused a delay of more than two hours. Marana’s players stayed loose by doing their best “Footloose.” They danced.
“It’s a fun group,” Mills said. “There’s a loose and a fun feel, which comes through that friendship that they have off the field. That’s huge. I see some teams that are (like) a business.”
Mills manages the land department for the Tucson branch of D.R. Horton. He and wife Julie, a musician, have five children, including four girls. Malia, the middle child, is a pitcher and outfielder for the Marana All-Stars.
Chris Beck’s wife, Jackie, is serving as the Team Mom this week. Their daughter Cadence is one of Marana’s top pitchers and sluggers. Her sister, Brooke, is also on the squad.
The other assistant coach, Jason Angell, is the father of Addie. The other members of the team are Adelaide Bradshaw, Bella Brooks-Rojel, Aubriana Gray, Kyla Layton, Addy Lee, Mariah Moreno, Bella Sayre and Emma Winter.
All the families were thrown for a loop when Little League International sent an email at 1:30 a.m. Thursday, informing the team that it was booked on a flight for Seattle at noon that day. Even Thompson, the veteran district administrator, was under the impression that the team would be leaving Friday.
“How many of my parents are awake right now?” Mills wondered when he saw the email. “And what are they gonna do when I send out a mass text?”
A mad scramble ensued to get the girls ready and make sure all their documentation was in order. Sleep was scarce.
“Who needs sleep?” Mills said with a laugh.
He got assistance from Marana Little League president Todd McGee, who helped with communication, paperwork and whatever else the team needed.
“It was super hectic, but I definitely wouldn’t change it for anything,” McGee said. “To be able to do this on behalf of the girls and their parents, it’s the whole reason we volunteer.”
The 10 squads participating in the World Series received their uniforms, took team photos and had meetings Friday. Saturday’s festivities included opening ceremonies, a skills contest and a barbecue dinner.
Marana, which is in Pool B, faces Latin America in its first game at 9 a.m. Sunday. Every team is guaranteed at least five games, with the top four teams in each pool advancing to single-elimination championship play.
No matter where they finish, the Marana girls are scheduled to fly home on Sunday, Aug. 6. School starts the next day at Marana High School.
Imagine starting your high school career as a World Series champion.
“That is the game plan,” Mills said. “We’re here. Why not win it, right?”
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at email@example.com. On Twitter: @michaeljlev
Who: Marana All-Stars vs. Olmeca (Mexico City)
What: Junior League Softball World Series
When: 9 a.m.
Where: Kirkland, Wash.
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