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SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT — On Monday, the 14 kids of the Red Land Little League team will return to school.

They already missed the first week, but that was a given once the team qualified for the 2015 Little League World Series in Williamsport. When the kids do walk through their middle-school doors, they'll return as heroes, taking their hometowns, York County and finally, the state of Pennsylvania on an improbable journey.

When it was all said and done, Red Land returns home as more than just state champions or Mid-Atlantic Region champions. It's the United States champion, falling a game short of being crowned the best Little League team in the world. It's a feat that nobody could've imagined happening, even the players on the team.

"We knew we were really good," catcher Kaden Peifer said. "I knew we could make it far, but I never thought we would win the U.S. championship."

Instant celebrities: The players on the team became household names on a national scale and put the small town of Lewisberry on the map. Standing in their corner weren't just fans from York County, but the entire state. For the tournament, 499,964 fans attended the 32 LLWS games, a new tournament record. A major reason for that was because of Red Land, which saw more than 186,000 fans flock to the tiny town in central Pennsylvania for its five games.

Aside from baseball, this journey that spanned the entire summer presented the 12- and 13-year-old boys with so much more. When they were in Bristol, Connecticut, for the Mid-Atlantic Regional, the team toured the ESPN studios. Then, when they were in Williamsport for the LLWS, the team members ventured out to State College on one of their off days to practice with the Penn State football team.

Those opportunities are usually reserved for celebrities, which is pretty much what this team became.

"It's been awesome going to all these places," pitcher and infielder Jaden Henline said. "ESPN, Penn State football, it's just been amazing. (The football team) came and said hi to us. We met all these famous players."

Major-league support: And even the famous players that they didn't meet wanted to make sure their support was heard. Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter and players Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop wished the team well. So did Philadelphia Phillies player Jeff Francoeur. Even the local teams, the Harrisburg Senators and York Revolution, took to social media to make sure the team knew that it had their support.

And when Red Land arrived to the LLWS, it presented an even cooler opportunity. The team mingled with players from all over the world, even sharing a bathroom with the Japanese team, the team it ultimately fell to in Sunday's championship game. It'll take home memorabilia received from other teams, T-shirts from the Japanese team and boomerangs from the Australian side, just to name a few.

The team was rarely home this summer, and the players hadn't slept in their beds in nearly a month. It would've been hard for the team to realize just how popular they became, except for the support that showed up for the games these past two weeks.

A hero's return: Hundreds of fans flocked to the practice fields at the Little League International Complex just to see the team take batting practice. Girls screamed the names of players, proudly stating the name of their newfound crush.

The craziest part of all, many of these kids were a year or two older than the players, most of them in high school. When Kaden was asked if he thinks that'll continue when he gets back to school on Monday, he was short with his answer, but said it with the sheepish grin that most boys his age possess when talking about girls — "I don't know. Maybe."

Many of the players aren't even teenagers yet, but they'll be forever viewed as stars in their hometown. Just making it to the LLWS set the mark for the furthest a team from Red Land Little League or York County ever made it in the tournament. It'll be pretty hard for any future teams to top it.

The team might have been the one playing the games, but it was hardly alone in the run that it made. The entire state rallied behind Red Land, and when the team faced Japan on Sunday, it had the entire country backing it.

Whatever praise the players get when they arrive home, they deserve. And they'll handle it with the same respect and humility that they showed on the field all summer.

"I think they're going to get a hero's welcome when they get back," manager Tom Peifer said. "They're very humble boys, and there's not one of them that I ... think is going to take it the wrong way. They're going to go back into school and they're going to be good citizens and good students and continue to work hard at baseball and all the other sports they play."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com.

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