‘This team never quit’: Little Leaguers make South Portland proud

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SOUTH PORTLAND — “Hi, I’m Richard Gilboy, back home they call me Ricardo, and I take big-daddy hacks.”

With that colorful and confident self-introduction, backed up by a home run during the same game, South Portland Little Leaguer Richie Gilboy became an internet sensation last week during the New England regionals of the Little League World Series in Bristol, Connecticut.

As part of the South Portland American squad – from one of the city’s two leagues – Gilboy found himself featured prominently in the bright lights of ESPN and Barstool Sports, becoming the face of a team that went all the way to the regional finals before falling to a perennial powerhouse from Fairfield, Connecticut.

When asked this week which was more rewarding, his new-found celebrity or the team making it as far as it did, he didn’t hesitate.

“Making the tournament, because it’s a team effort, and it’s not one person,” said Gilboy, who explained that “big-daddy hacks” are forceful swings at the plate.

That emphasis on teamwork was repeated in interviews with several South Portland American coaches and players, and with city residents who cheered the hometown team on during their exciting and improbable tournament run.

“We’re here because of the team,” head coach Jim Poole said he told his players, noting that different kids would step up at different times over the journey to the regional title, which included six games in seven days and several come-from-behind victories.

“That was part of the magic – this team never quit,” Poole said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Poole also pointed out that the South Portland American League, which plays at Wilkinson Park, has just 33 players in the majors division for kids ages 11-12.

Besides Gilboy, the team’s 11-man roster included Carson Blake, Alec Campbell, Timmy Crockett, Matthew Fogg, Andrew Heffernan, Nolan Hobbs, Aiden Lee, Ben Stanley, Johnny Poole and Ian Wright. Poole said everyone on the team is 12 and leaving Little League next year, except for Wright, who is 11.

Outfielder Carson Blake said they “played as a team” and “everyone was contributing.”

Poole highlighted Blake’s hard work as an example of how everyone on the team played their own role in the success.

“I just play as hard as I can every time that I go out on the field,” Blake said.

Poole said the team “got better with belief” as they continued to overcome obstacles and beat the odds together.

One obstacle that they couldn’t get past was the team from Fairfield, the only team to beat them (twice) in the regional tournament. The South Portland team was on the wrong end of a close call in the very first inning of the final game, when an apparent home run by Nolan Hobbs was called foul.

“I thought it was fair from the beginning … I still think it was fair,” said Poole, who was also clear he was “not pointing a finger,” and that the team also made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the game South Portland eventually lost 10-0. He also said the umpires were “very, very good” throughout the tournament.

Despite falling just short of a trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Series, the team seemed to electrify many viewers in South Portland as they cheered the team on.

Roy Kierstead said he was a pitcher on the last South Portland Little League team to win the state championship and go on the regionals 50 years ago, in 1967.

“I’ve been watching closely, because it’s an honor for them to be there,” Kierstead said while taking in the regional final on Aug. 12 at Chicago Dogs on Main Street. “It’s a great experience for these young men.”

“I played on the South Portland American like, 100 years ago,” joked Rusty Rand, watching at Buffalo Wild Wings on Western Avenue as the team took a must-win game Aug. 11. “These kids are just doing it for the fun of it.”

“They’re all great kids,” said Sarah Conners, a sixth-grade teacher from South Portland who had several of the players in class this year. She and her husband, Joe, watched part of that game at Easy Day on Broadway.

“It’s incredible. It’s unreal,” Conners said about the team’s success.

Also watching at Easy Day was Tracey Varney of South Portland, who said her workplace, the Cookie Jar bakery, did a collection to help the players and their families afford the trip to Connecticut.

James Gilboy, who is Richie’s dad and one of several assistant coaches on the team, said the team and the players’ families are “really thankful for the support.”

The older Gilboy also hopes this year’s team can connect with members of the 1967 team to compare their experiences.

“It’s been really great how a lot of people were watching us,” Blake said, adding, “You don’t realize how many people were watching” until coming back to South Portland after the tournament.

“To have a city rally around that and embrace us … is what Little League is all about,” Poole said.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Players and coaches from the South Portland American Little League team visit ESPN studios in Bristol, Connecticut, during their trip to the New England regional tournament. (Courtesy Jim Poole)