Thousands gathered recently in the George H Henderson Jr. Expo Center in Lufkin, Texas to welcome home the Thundering 13, National Little League champions.
Each of the 13 players rode in on the back of a pickup truck, to his own walk-on songs. Inside the center, an enormous American flag hung from two fire department ladder trucks.
After this over-the-top welcome, the community showed its love during a two-hour celebration. State and local politicians, including Texas Rep. Trent Ashby congratulated the players and awarded them certificates, custom baseball bats and flags that have flown above the state Capitol.
The players are only 12 and 13-years-old, and their faces showed awe throughout the night. Clayton Wigley is one of them. He says he trained to win – but what happened was beyond his wildest dreams.
“I thought we had a good chance,” Wigley says. “I never realized it would go this far.”
Just making it into the World Series is something new for Lufkin. If the town is known for anything, it is for football, not baseball. Jeff Buchanan is the father of pitcher and third baseman, Chip Buchanan.
“You have minute of reflection saying, what just happened – did that really happen? You’re just, you know, it’s kind of like a dream and think I can’t believe that that really happened. Cause as a kid growing up you always dream about the Little League World Series and you watch it on TV,” Buchanan says.
This time he and his wife, Heather Buchanan, watched it live in Pennsylvania.
It was huge for them, but they didn’t realize just how much the win meant for Lufkin. But Heather Buchanan knew it meant the world to the city when the team got back into town. Even though rain from Hurricane Harvey was pounding, dozens of people braved the weather to line up along the streets to get a glimpse of the Thundering 13 and their police escort.
“We’ve been isolated, you know, we’ve been in Williamsport,” Buchanan says, “and a lot of people did come but nothing like seeing the whole town show up for you and – like this tonight, I mean, he’ll have this forever.”
A phrase heard over and over, throughout the speeches and congratulations of the night, was that this win was the result of a “community effort.”
Bud Maddux, the manager of the Thundering 13, is a veteran baseball coach in Lufkin with a 40-year career.
“That’s the type of community this is and always has been,” Maddux says. “They appreciate winners on and off the field and they support them – good people – and that’s what it’s all about.”
Because the was deeply affected by Hurricane Harvey, Tara Watson-Watkins decided the celebration for the Thundering 13 would double as a relief effort for hurricane survivors. Watson-Watkins is with the Lufkin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We could not be gathered together with this many people at the exposition center and not do something for all of the victims of Harvey,” Watson-Watkins says.
Donations from attendees filled two 18-wheelers and at the end of the night those trucks drove off to Beaumont and Houston. The team also raised thousands of dollars from t-shirt sales, donating the money to storm relief efforts.
You might think the city’s young celebrity athletes would just take it easy after their win. That’s not what’s happening in Lufkin. This week team members start a new school year. Just like everyone else, they must try out and see if they make it onto their school baseball teams. It’s likely these national winners will do just fine.