Gardner, Tolleson Little League

Tolleson’s West End Little League Juniors All-Stars team departed the Sierra Vista state tournament with a fifth-place finish among 12 qualifying teams.

On a team comprised of few travel ball players, in a league where the path to a state title is sorely untrodden, with a head coach so intent on weaving his team around the obstacles placed before them, the West End Little League Junior All-Stars team soared to a fifth-place finish at the state tournament.

It departed the Sierra Vista tournament, held from July 15 through July 18, with a 1-2 record and a fifth-place finish among 12 qualifying teams.

The bid to a state tournament was shocking in its own right. Head coach Nathan Gardner, who has held some position in this league for eight years now, routinely remembers West End Little League All-Stars teams failing to advance beyond the district round.

This was a beast Tolleson teams could not topple, for reasons unbeknownst to Gardner.

So, when his group of 13- and 14-year-olds opened districts play with a win, Gardner felt the momentum begin to shift. Despite a loss the next game, they managed to string together several more wins, ultimately piecing together the league’s first District 2 title since, well, nobody really knows.

“I started doing some asking around, trying to figure out when the last time we even went to the state tournament was and it’s been a while,” Gardner said. “I couldn’t even find it.”

Gardner dug through the archives to stumble upon a 1961 Tolleson team that had won the state tournament. He is not sure if that’s the last time a team from this league had been to the state tournament, but no other research suggests the alternative.

“That was pretty cool,” he said, on the prospect of his team becoming the first from this league in nearly 60 years to advance to the state tournament. “One of the things I told the boys was, ‘I’ve been working with you for a long time now.’ We went out and took on some teams at a state level that are comprised of nothing but club kids. All of those kids played travel baseball.”

After splitting its first two games, the West End little leaguers squared off against a team from Tucson in game three, facing elimination. It was enjoying a 6-3 lead, on the brink of adding to its lead with two runners on and no outs, when Mother Nature interjected.

The game went into a lightning delay. Then, another one. After a rain delay and one more lightning delay, umpires called the game, postponing it until the following morning.

Tolleson and Tucson picked up where they had left off the next day, with Tolleson still up by a trio of runs and threatening for more. What was lost in the delay was the momentum Gardner’s squad was enjoying.

Its 6-3 lead quickly vanished. Their pitcher from the previous night, before the invasion of the inclement weather, was not able to reenter the game.

“And we ended up losing that game,” Gardner said. “The whole circumstances of it all was just awful.”

The final chapter of their All-Stars run did not come with the fairytale ending they would have liked. But, instead, the path to get there was revelatory: West End Little League is deserving of a spot in the state round, despite the track record of previous teams. And just now are they really learning to tap in to the talent they have.

“It’s super important. I think what it did, the whole experience, kind of ignited a hunger.”

The lack of travel ballers the league possesses is not a hindrance to getting to the vaunted state tournament, which was once viewed as elusive but is now seen as a realistic goal for next year and beyond.

Gardner was approached by multiple coaches in Sierra Vista, all inquiring where this spunky Tolleson bunch came from.

“Where’s Tolleson at?” they wondered, and, “How many travel ball kids do you have on your team?”

“None, really,” Gardner humbly shot back.

That his team was able to march to Sierra Vista and hang with some of the best teams in the state makes Gardner giddy with excitement. Against a Paradise Valley team, which was representing the powerhouse East Valley region, Tolleson masterfully held its own.

“They had swept through their whole division; they just breezed through it. Nobody really put up any runs against them. And here we were — smaller in stature and just keeping up with them the whole game.”

Gardner himself is an alum of the league, once a member of a West End Little League All-Stars team. The difference between his tenure in this league versus his son’s, who Gardner coaches on this All-Stars team, seems to have transformed overnight. The overall makeup of the league has flipped on its head, and Tolleson is home to a state-contending team once more.

Though he’d likely humbly decline, a good chunk of that transformation falls on the shoulders of Gardner, who donates so much of his own time, money and resources into this team for the benefit of his son, his teammates and the league itself. The cost of travel ball is far too expensive, he reasoned, so he aimed at bringing competitive, travel ball-like baseball to his own community.

“Not everybody can afford to put their kids through travel ball, as much as they want to. I’m passionate about the game. My son is on my team, and I told him, ‘Honestly, this is the best time ever, being able to spend all these hours with you, watching you compete, watching you go out there with your friends and just play ball.’

“I’ll never get this time back, and I think a lot of people miss out on that. Realistically, I wonder what I would do if I wasn’t coaching. I’d probably be wasting my time doing something that isn’t as valuable.”

What Gardner has deemed valuable — mastering the fundamentals of this game, creating inseparable bonds that resonate across the league — has rocketed West End Little League back onto the map in the wider, state title picture.

This roar, one that has seemingly been lost on Tolleson since the 1960s, has been mirthfully restored.

And it won’t budge anytime soon.