Many of the 12-year-olds who travelled to Williamsport six years ago are seniors in high school

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: DEBORAH MEHLHAFF - Members of the Gresham Nationals Little League World Series team (from left) Hunter Hemenway, Ethan Meckel, Greg Mehlhaff, Ethan Rose, Christian Turner and (down front) Ezra Samperi pose together after a game at Clackamas last month. Six summers ago, a bunch of 12-year-olds caught Gresham by storm after earning a trip to the 2012 Little League World Series.

Now, much of that group is in its senior season at Gresham High, hoping to make more memories in their last hurrah together.

Several players from that World Series team graduated last year with Brett Falkner now playing at George Fox, Tyler Linch redshirting at Mt. Hood Community College and Tyler Pederson off to college at Oregon State.

But a core group of those players are now wrapping up their senior seasons after putting the Gophers in solid playoff position at No. 12 in the OSAA rankings heading into the week.

Among that crew are first baseman Ethan Rose, catcher Ezra Samperi, third baseman Ethan Meckel and designated hitter Hunter Hemenway.

"We've definitely grown closer — we have fun together and pick on each other — we want this to be our best year yet," Rose said.

An example of that goofiness showed up in the game chatter during a game last week when Meckel tracked down a foul ball near the opponent's bullpen, tripping over a tarp in the process. He picked himself off the grass and while trotting back to his position, he heard shouts of concern from across the field. His teammates were asking about the well fare of the tarp.

Fellow senior Christian Turner rejoined the team at the start of the season, but after several years away from baseball, he was limited to action largely as a pinch-runner. Two weeks ago, he turned in his gear and found an after-school job.

Another World Series member, the speedy Devon Bratcher, saw his family move to Arizona not long after the Series.

Also still competing is senior Greg Mehlhaff, who has emerged as the ace on the Clackamas High pitching staff. He played the corner infield spots and saw some relief duty during the Cavaliers' state title run last year.

Mehlhaff is a main reason behind the team's run to the Mount Hood Conference title this spring. The Cavs have won 14 in a row and are ranked No. 3 in the state.

"Coming off a championship season we wanted to carry that into this year. We faced some tough teams in the preseason, but we're rolling a bit now," he said. "There's never a panic with this group, we know we have the ability, and that things are going to click."

Mehlhaff tossed a 7-0 shutout against his former teammates last month — a game that featured plenty of friendly chatter and included a World Series reunion photo after the handshake line.

"That's what made that group special — it was a tight brotherhood," said Little League head coach Jason Trickel, now an assistant with the Barlow softball program. "Even now with some of them graduated, when they come back into town you'll hear about them all hanging out together."

Mehlhaff and Samperi met for dinner after the game, catching up over bowls of spaghetti and sour dough bread.

"Even though I'm going to a different school, we've been able to keep that bond. Ezra and I talk every day — I think we have a streak of 200 days on SnapChat right now," Mehlhaff laughed. "I still wanted to win, but it was special to share one last time on the field together."

"He's a good buddy and always will be," Samperi said. "We have a great time competing against him, but outside the lines we are the best of friends."

Mehlhaff has signed to play at Pepperdine next season, while Samperi will be at Mt. Hood Community College. Both friends travelled to the same college scouting camps over the summer.

"You're out there with 100 other people trying to get noticed — it's a tough process," Mehlhaff said.

Hemenway has been forced to take on a new role for the Gophers this season, moving from being a top arm on the pitching staff to solely swinging the bat as a designated hitter. He underwent Tommy John surgery over the summer after suffering an elbow injury during a tune-up game before the Gophers' playoff run last season.

"We were playing No. 1 West Linn, and I really wanted to throw. I begged coach to give me an inning," Hemenway said. "I got three or four pitches in and something felt weird. There wasn't any real pain, but I could tell my mechanics were different and my elbow was a little sore. I pulled myself out, and the next morning I couldn't hold a water bottle."

He has taken some of the team's younger pitchers under his wing, offering tidbits to Trevor Bless and Evan Olson, as they've become main cogs in the rotation.

Hemenway is in the recovery process and expects to be back at full strength in time to join his future teammates at Linn-Benton in the fall.

Across the group, memories of that trip to Williamsport remain strong.

"I just remember the stage that we were on — here we are a bunch of 12-year-olds on national TV — it still shocks me when I look back at it," Mehlhaff said.

"Getting my one and only hit was surreal, stepping on base and looking up and you see thousands of people watching you," Samperi said.

"It was the farthest you can go when you are younger — Williamsport brought us together and showed us what good ball looks like," Meckel said.

And now, that group of players in on the verge of the 6A playoffs, which begin May 21, all with the same goal in mind.

"We want for our last game together to be a win," Samperi said.

Regardless of how the next few weeks play out, this group of ball players will forever be linked. And they wouldn't have it any other way.

"We have a bond that we'll never lose," Samperi said. "Who knows, 10 years from now I could see us playing slow pitch softball together. I don't see myself being apart from these guys."

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