Youth baseball is having a moment in Southern California. On August 27, the West Region team from El Segundo faced rivals Curacao to become champs in the Little League World Series. Westchester family, the Knudsens–Steve, Jenna and their son, 12-year-old Julian–watched the games from Steve’s man cave located in their garage. The players and families on the El Segundo team are people the Knudsens know well from years of Julian’s own participation in local athletics, including the Del Rey American Little League (DRALL) and being on a travel baseball team with some of the championship players.
“I was actively texting Louis Lappe’s dad,” says Steve. “We had a little chat group of dads, and we were just living vicariously through them. So, it was a lot of fun to watch them win in such dramatic fashion.”
For Julian, watching El Segundo win was exciting and also inspiring. He’s played baseball against the team before, as a member of DRALL, and nearly won.
“In the sectional tournament, we were beating them 2-0 in the last inning and then they hit a home run,” says Julian. “So, it felt like, ‘Oh, we almost beat the World Series champions!’ It gives me a lot of motivation.”
There’s nothing like a healthy rivalry to inspire an athlete!
But Julian, known as Juju on the field, also knows the sweet taste of victory. Juju was selected to play baseball for the USA 12U National Baseball Team earlier this year. The team advanced all the way to the World Championship Final at the World Baseball Softball Confederation last month, which was held in Taiwan and featured teams from 12 countries. Facing the Chinese Taipei home team, who was previously undefeated, was a daunting challenge. But the USA team pulled together, and after beating the team twice, they came out victorious!
For a 12-year-old to bring home the gold medal and get international recognition is a huge accomplishment, but for all three Knudsens, the experience was about more than clocking a win. Not only did the experience teach Julian about working hard, having a short memory when things don’t go your way and being a team player, it brought the entire family closer together.
Ever since Julian was a toddler, he’s lived and breathed sports—a bit of a surprise since both his parents are successful architects. As a toddler, Steve says Julian’s favorite place to visit was Dick’s Sporting Goods.
“When he was two or three, he would say, ‘I want to go there and just play with all the stuff.’ He’d be in there for an hour, and we’d have to drag him out. If we asked him to go to Disneyland, he’d say, ‘No, I want to go to Dick’s!’ There’s also a funny video of Julian when he was little—maybe 8 or 9-months-old–catching a full-size basketball. So, he’s always loved different sports, especially the ones involving a ball and a stick,” Steve says.
Though Julian doesn’t quite remember turning down the magic of Disneyland to go to the sporting goods store, he does remember going to his first Dodger games.
“I really loved it. I was inspired by Clayton Kershaw,” says Julian, who now wears the number 22 on his jersey in honor of his hero “The Claw,” as Kershaw is often called.
Julian’s love for the sport, combined with playing on baseball teams since he was four, has made him an exceptional baseball player who now plays middle infield and is a talented pitcher. While playing in a tournament in North Carolina, Julian was invited to be part of the 12-U USA team–an offer he couldn’t refuse. Soon the family was off to Taiwan, but Julian had to stay with the team for both training and the international tournament, not with his parents. It was the first time Juju didn’t have mom and dad looking over his shoulder. The time in Taiwan over the summer was a real growing experience for everyone.
“It was a big growth opportunity for all of us, being in a foreign country and staying in different hotels, about 20 minutes apart,” says Jenna. “He had to grow up, and we had to, too. He had to be responsible for making sure he had everything packed, his passport and all that stuff. We did fly on the same flight with him to Taiwan, but he was with his team, and we tried to respect that, too, and give him space.”
It brought a completely new perspective to the parents of the flourishing athlete.
“We were kind of experiencing the games like fans. We would take a bus with all the other parents, which was really fun. They are an awesome group of people, and everyone was so excited to be there and watch our kids represent the USA. After the games, sometimes we’d get to say ‘hi’ to them for about two minutes before they got back on their bus. It was different, but it was great. He was very responsible. I felt like he rose to the occasion,” says Jenna.
Rise to the occasion Juju and the team did. Playing at a packed stadium that seated 8,500 people, the crowd went crazy for the USA team.
“They were always swarming us after we got off the bus and at the hotel they were asking for autographs and pictures. That was pretty good. The people really loved us,” says Julian.
The final score was 10-4 after a seven-run sixth inning. It was a glorious win.
Now a 7th grader at St. Anastasia, Juju’s got big plans for the future when it comes to athletics. He will play football, basketball and baseball this year and moving forward.
“I see myself playing sports for a long time, hopefully in college and maybe even professional sports if I work hard and get there,” says Julian, who adds it really doesn’t matter how good an athlete is when they are 12–international gold medal winner or not. “It matters how good you are when you’re 16, 17, 18. You have to just keep working hard and get better every day.”
These days, the Knudsens are more focused on their busy schedules than Julian’s newfound independence, but it does sit in the back of Steve and Jenna’s mind.
“From a family standpoint, we realize he’s getting older and we’re going to have to start letting go soon,” says Steve who is making it a priority to spend more time together as a family while they still can. “We have to enjoy the time we have right now and go on more family trips because pretty soon he’s going to be off to college. We’re going to see him less and less–unless he lives right next door to us!”
We joke about Steve and Jenna building an adjacent house for Julian. Considering they’re both architects, it could happen. While Julian might be going off to college sooner than they’d like, one thing that will always remain is the love and pride Steve and Jenna have for their son.
Story by Shanee Edwards. Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner.