Millions of kids share the same dream every year. Whether it be on the Little League or professional stage, or anywhere between on the spectrum, young baseball players imagine themselves on the grandest stage of America's pastime, the World Series.
For a group of local high school athletes, that dream was realized last week.
The Nuscotomek Palomino team, the 17-18 age division of PONY Baseball, reached the world series, which took place at Uni-Trade Stadium in Laredo, Texas, last weekend.
“You didn’t really realize how big it was until you got to Uni-Trade Stadium," coach Steve Cantway said. "This isn’t just a tournament; this is an international tournament that kids dream about, from Little League all the way up to Palomino. And the kids got to do that, so it’s cool.”
Six different local schools are represented on Nuscotomek, which is based out of Aroma Park and Kankakee — Bishop McNamara (Tyler Hiller, Owen Jackson, Michael Lanie), Bradley-Bourbonnais (Sam Marion, Maycen Rice, Ethan Steelman, Josh Varner), Kankakee (Ethan McNeely), Manteno (Ryan Crockett), Peotone (Caleb Hunter and Cesar Anaya) and Trinity (Zane Gadbois).
Nuscotomek was one of five American teams, as well as United States territory Puerto Rico and three international teams — Mexico, Germany and Chinese-Taipei -- that participated.
"Playing with kids from other countries was very eye-opening," Crockett said. "You could really tell how hard those kids had worked to get to that tournament, and all the teams did a great job of representing their countries."
Nuscotomek played its first game before the opening ceremony, a 2-0 loss to Harlingen, Texas. But at the ceremony, a spontaneous moment became a lifelong memory for Nuscotomek.
“We took a picture with Chinese-Taipei; we took a picture with Youngstown [Ohio] and Mexico, so we were waiting to start the ceremony," Cantway said. "We asked Puerto Rico to come over to take a picture, and they did, then another team jumped in, and another team and next thing you know, everyone was in [the picture].
"It was spontaneous, wasn’t scripted or anything, and those are the reasons why we do it."
On the macro level, area ballplayers were shaking hands and throwing fastballs against fellow teenagers from across the globe. But on the micro level, having six area schools merge together to play on one team was different as well.
“It was fun because there were kids back in the day that would ask me, ‘How do you pitch so [well]; how do you pitch so fast?’" Hiller said. "And five years later, they’re on the mound, and I’m watching them pitch like, ‘Dude, you’ve got it in the bag just like I do.’
"Everyone was having fun. We weren't worried about baseball, about winning or losing, just having fun."
Jackson, who was the team's primary catcher, hadn't caught for many of his pitchers before, but playing against some of his teammates at the high school levels and at younger stages allowed him to find some comfort with his staff.
"Before the World Series I never caught for any of the pitchers that played, but it wasn’t that hard for me because I have faced them before," Jackson said. "Being able to go down and play was a huge achievement and being able to do it with people that you know and can play without having any problems made it 100 times better."
After an inauspicious start with their loss Friday, Nuscotomek dropped its second game as well, a Saturday morning contest to Germany by a 13-3 score.
The team rebounded in its final contest, pounding 20 runs for an impressive 20-6 win against Laredo to finish the tournament in sixth place.
"Being able to play Germany was so fun; even though we lost, the experience made the game fun," Jackson said. "But being able to bounce back from loss and being able to pick it back up with a huge win was great.
"Being able to do that made the whole trip worth it, and it sent us home on a high note."
As a Palomino coach — and assistant coach at Bishop McNamara — for more than a decade, this might have been the first time Cantway was able to coach his kids in the world series, but it wasn't his first time coaching a fun and respectful bunch of kids, which he said is his primary reason for coaching on a volunteer basis.
"I’ve had the great fortune all these years, and this year was no exception, of always having good kids playing for me," Cantway said. "Not just athletically, just good kids in general, and that’s what I always hope for.
"We do this because we love the game and love coaching kids."
And for those kids, last weekend was one of the final steps of transitioning from childhood to manhood.
"When I was younger, that was always the goal with club baseball — to make it to the world series," Jackson said. "I never made it [in Little League], so having the opportunity to play [in Palomino] made my childhood complete."