How Lafayette reached the Little League World Series
The state tournament game against South Lake Charles was when Steven Menard knew he wasn't coaching an ordinary Little League team.
"That was the lightbulb moment," said Menard, the coach for Lafayette Little League.
Lafayette came back from a 5-3 deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning to defeat South Lake Charles in 6-5 to reach the state tournament final. It was a launching point for the team, which hasn't lost since.
Lafayette went on to win the state title and were victorious in three straight games in the Southwest Regional tournament, defeating Colorado and Texas West twice to reach the Little League World Series for the first time since 2011.
Lafayette's first game in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, will be against South Dakota on Friday (4 p.m. CT, ESPN). Former Lafayette Little League player Andrew Stevenson, an outfielder with the Washington Nationals, talked to the team after winning the state title. He was on the 2005 Lafayette team that made it to Williamsport.
"We were all kind of sitting around going 'Hey, we got something special here,' " Menard said. "Until these kids get punched in the face, you don't know what's going to happen."
With no international teams at Williamsport this year due to COVID-19, Lafayette did not need to win its regional tournament to make the Little League World Series. The top two teams in each region qualified for this year's tournament.
But they won it anyway, with Menard explaining that winning the region was the team's No. 1 goal heading in to Waco, where the it was held.
According to Menard, Lafayette's success is built off of their pitching and defense. But for as well as they've played, Menard believes his team can play better.
"I don't think we've hit the way I think we can yet," Menard said. "We see a lot of things in practices and stuff that tells us that this team can really hit well."
The journey to get to Williamsport was more challenging than usual for Lafayette due to COVID-19. Lafayette's players were quarantined at the hotel during the regional in Waco, Texas, and were only allowed to leave for games and practices.
Families could attend games and practices, but could not come in close contact with any of the players or coaches.
"Getting out there and playing baseball for us is easy for us," Menard said. "I mean, the hardest challenge for us right now is keeping (the players) healthy and safe.
"A lot of them aren't that used to being away from their families for this long period of time."
The team left for Williamsport on Friday, with news of Little League's decision to disallow the general public — due to the COVID-19 delta variant — from attending games.
However, Lafayette and the 15 other teams will have 250 team passes for family, friends and community members.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Lafayette Little League. For Menard, the commemoration comes at a fitting time.
"It was kind of special that we got this group the way we got them," Menard said. "This team is really special."