On roads into Hazel Dell, the small signs steer you toward memory lane.
A quick glance out the passenger window takes you back to when a group of 11 and 12 year olds ruled the town.
Hazel Dell Little League’s trip to the Little League World Series in 2000 is still marked by signs along major roads into the unincorporated area north of Vancouver.
In the 15 years since, each of those 12 players has traveled their own road out of Hazel Dell. Some have journeyed far away. Others are close enough to swing by for a barbecue or share lessons with young baseball players trying to follow in their footsteps.
Some make a living through sports. Others found their calling in finance, health care or law enforcement. One is even a standup comic.
Now grown men in their late twenties, the summer of 2000 still connects those players. They played in front of 25,000 people and millions more on television.
Upon returning, they were greeted by hundreds of fans at the airport, had a parade thrown in their honor, met Vice President Al Gore and were honored by the Seattle Mariners.
And though they were in the spotlight for only a couple weeks, the experience still resonates.
“It shaped my entire life, really,” said Jay Ponciano, one of the stars of that team. “It built a lot of confidence in all of us. I realized how important that was to the community. We really took pride in that. From that time on, we all just wanted to be the best we could and represent our town in the best possible way.”
The next generation
Memories of that trip to Williamsport, Pa., were poignant last week. Tuesday, Ponciano and Jackson Evans spoke to a local Little League team that has similar World Series aspirations.
Today, Cascade Little League begins play in the Northwest Regional Tournament in San Bernardino, Calif. If Cascade wins the six-team tournament, it would join Hazel Dell as the only Clark County team to reach the Little League World Series.
As Cascade’s players knelt before them, Ponciano and Evans became storytellers thumbing through a mental scrapbook. A kid-like excitement arose in their voices when they recalled marathon ping-pong games or getting fan mail from girls.
But Ponciano and Evans had one main message to the players whether they reach Williamsport or not — enjoy it.
“Don’t take things for granted,” Evans said. “Just soak everything in. Luckily, we had coaches who preached that to us.
“You don’t realize how fast these things go by.”
Beyond the basepaths
The sun-filled days of doubleheaders and hot dogs don’t last forever. Even those who play baseball for several years after Little League might not find the sport so carefree.
Ponciano went on to become one of the area’s top high school players at Hudson’s Bay before playing at Washington State University. He said after his Hazel Dell Little League year, baseball became more intense and cut-throat.
Still, the sport provided a foundation that he has built his life upon. Ponciano now is Director of Operations for Avamere Court, an assisted living center in Keizer, Ore.
“You learn all these qualities playing on a team,” he said. “You have to develop leadership skills. I took everything I learned throughout my baseball career and brought it to being a professional in health care.”
Evans also played collegiate baseball, first at Oregon State, then at Chico State. He now works for Portland-based Ergo Depot, which makes specialized furniture.
“You grow up a lot going through an experience like that,” he said. “But the one thing you learn really quick is to stay focused on the task at hand.”
Sports became a professional calling for a few of Hazel Dell’s players.
Greg Peavey is currently a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins farm system at Double-A Chattanooga. After playing for Oregon State, he was drafted in the sixth round by the New York Mets.
Joshua Hash is a personal trainer in Redwood City, Calif. He earned a degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Physiology from San Francisco State, where he played basketball.
Though it’s not between the baselines, baseball pays the salary of Randy Rigali. He has an administrative job with the San Francisco Giants.
Closer to home, Jeremy Dunham is the Operations Manager at 360 Physical Therapy in Vancouver.
Jesse Boehm’s career took flight. He graduated magna cum laude from Washington State with an accounting degree. He is now a financial analyst for Boeing in Seattle.
Chris Clark never lost his love of jokes and laughter. He is a stand-up comic, writer and producer living in Portland. He recently opened for Dave Attell and Steve Byrne at Helium Comedy Club in Portland.
Alex Gordon makes sure nobody in Pullman gets too far out of the basepaths. After graduating from Washington State, he became an officer for the Pullman Police Department.
Though a few of his Hazel Dell teammates became WSU Cougars, Korey Dunkel chose Husky purple. He graduated from UW in 2011 and is now a project manager for Hermanson, a Kent-based mechanical construction company.
Each former Hazel Dell player has indeed taken a different road with its own peaks, valleys, twists and turns.
But each leads back to Hazel Dell, and a summer 15 years ago none of them will forget.
“It was one of the best times of our lives,” Ponciano said. “Driving back from Portland to visit the parents for a barbecue, it’s fun going down memory lane, looking left at H.B. Fuller (Field), picturing those big hits we had. The main thing is just the memories we had that we can all share together.
“It’s something that will last forever.”