Jazmine Ayala anticipated a low-key celebration when she and the rest of the Sunnyside Little League softball team returned home to Tucson on Thursday afternoon.
Instead, she and the rest of the world champions were greeted with a celebration that involved hundreds of fans and stretched from the airport to a south-side park where the team plays home games.
Sunnyside beat McLean, Va., 9-0 in the championship game of the Little League World Series in Portland, Ore., on Wednesday night to win its fifth straight game and become the first ever 12-and-under champion from Arizona.
“It doesn’t seem real at all,” said Ayala, who threw a two-hitter in Wednesday’s win in a game aired on ESPN2. “It seems like a dream or something.”
The party began as soon as the team’s flight touched down at Tucson International Airport. There was a water bridge on the tarmac, cheering fans, an assortment of local pols, roses, balloons and hugs.
It didn’t end there.
Hundreds of relatives and fans gathered at the main exit along with the bands and cheer squads from both Sunnyside and Desert View High schools.
“The girls couldn’t believe what they were seeing,” coach Rene Ayala said. “They didn’t expect any of this. They probably figured their parents would be there to say hi to them but the whole city was there.”
A charted bus escorted by police and a pair of fire engines took the team to Mission Manor Park, where more fans and more politicians were waiting.
“When we first won the World Series it didn’t really get to us but when we got here it kind of shocked us a little more,” Viviana Orantez said. “I was happy because my friends and family were here and all my teammates were happy.
“That’s what makes me happy, when they’re happy.”
Pima College athletic director Edgar Soto jokingly told the players he had letters of intent available for all of them to sign on the spot. Many of the fans asked for autographs.
Larry Bostic, 73, was among the crowd. He spent 15 years coaching softball in the Sunnyside Little League. In 1982 he had a senior team come within one win of going to the World Series. He was thrilled, Bostic said, to see the team win it all.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bostic said. “These girls have come a long way since I coached. The talent now is just unbelievable and that goes with dedication of course. I’m just tickled to see them do it.”
Of the 13 girls on the team, 12 attend Sunnyside district schools according to Mary Veres, a district spokeswoman. Six of the girls attend the district’s Challenger Middle School.
That why the escort made a point to pass by the school on the way to the park. About 100 Challenger students lined lined the sidewalk to show their support.
“I expected a little bit less,” Yannira Acuña said. “I didn’t know it was going to be this big. I didn’t know how much support we had here in Tucson.”