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When Petaluma National's motorcade reached the boys' hometown Monday upon their return from the Little League World Series, the communal affection for the team that has been mounting for weeks reached a crescendo.

Fire and police sirens wailed as the team drove by Petaluma Junior High School, where hundreds of the players' fellow students hooted, hollered and jumped for joy on the school's lawn.

The team's success "meant a lot because it made Petaluma more famous," said Tony Ocana, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the school. "They tried their best."

Petaluma National "represented our town against the whole world. They put us on the map," said PJHS eighth-grader Kira Kimberly. "I'm proud of them."

Something big has been building in southern Sonoma County over the past few weeks as Petaluma National piled win upon win.

The team made it to the U.S. final Saturday, losing a heartbreaker, then won on Sunday to capture third place in the World Series.

As team manager Eric Smith said during the West Regional in San Bernardino: "It gets more exciting the further you go."

Petaluma National swept that tournament, winning a golden ticket to South Williamsport, Pa. But that was just the beginning, for the team and their supporters.

During the World Series, the boys' extended families, friends and local supporters packed the two biggest theaters (253 seats each) at Boulevard 14 Cinema, chanting "Pe-ta-lu-ma" with every big hit and defensive gem.

Fans crowded into Taps, Beyond the Glory, McNear's and other local watering holes, roaring with each exciting victory, or they gathered for house parties to watch the local boys.

The Oakland A's Jonny Gomes, who grew up in Petaluma, drummed up support for Petaluma National, even wearing one of their jerseys before an A's game.

And Petaluma Little Leaguers' World Series games were televised nationally by ABC and ESPN, with highlights from those games shown along with those of major leaguers.

The Boulevard theater showed all of Petaluma's World Series games, charging $5 to $15, and donated ticket proceeds to help pay for expenses incurred by the boys' families in Pennsylvania.

After the first World Series game, Shane Caldwell, a Petaluma National board member with a booming voice, walked into the lobby and started chanting "Pe-ta-lu-ma" followed by a rhythmic clap, said Nate Torrens, a local Little League coach.

Caldwell was soon joined by more than 200 other fans, said Torrens, who chanted with his 9-year-old son, Tanner. Even some people who'd been watching movies and barely knew about the team came out to join in the clapping.

Overall the theater sold 2,178 tickets to the games, raising about $20,000 for the team, said Boulevard manager Stephanie Gibbs.

Donations came in from Rip City Riders and Jackson Family Wines, as well as other businesses, groups and individuals.

Petaluma Councilman Mike Harris said it took just three days for the community to raise the $60,000 needed to send all the Little League families to Pennsylvania.

"It's amazing the community came together that quickly," Harris said, so "parents could make a commitment to go to Williamsport."

The wild celebration reached a fever pitch Saturday -- at the theater, people leaped out of their chairs and hugged strangers -- when the team rallied from 10 runs down to tie the U.S. title game.

By the end of the U.S. final, this group of young men had earned respect and appreciation -- for who they are and how they played -- not just in the North Bay but across the country. Their name, Petaluma National, fit perfectly.

Petaluma is a community that knows how to band together. People support one another during tragedies, such as the April slaying of local teacher Kim Conover and the accidental death of Kenilworth Junior High student Trevor Smith in June.

But this time the upwelling of connection has been for a jubilant celebration.

"We're so grateful to come together over something joyful after so many tragedies," said native Petaluman Jani Walker, whose daughter attends Petaluma Junior High.

Torrens, a Petaluma plumber who coaches a team of 9-year-olds, said National's exultant World Series run helped the community get through a difficult year.

"They put us on their shoulders and carried us through all that," Torrens said. In his blog, he noted Petaluma National showed "heart and desire" and that players didn't "disrespect the game, complain, argue or hang their heads."

Holland Foote, who brought his 4-year-old son Spencer to watch Petaluma National arrive at the fairgrounds Monday, said the team's run "almost brought a tear to my eye."

Foote had Spencer sign a guestbook at the welcome-home celebration and said "he couldn't be prouder" of Petaluma National. Then he hit on a key element of their appeal: "It was truly a team effort -- not just one individual."

Rip City Rider Timmy Greenhow, imposingly clad in black leather biker gear, said he, too, "got teary eyed" watching the community rally around their boys.

As more than 1,000 supporters streamed out of the fairgrounds, Rip City president Rob Anello said it had been "an honor" to escort Petaluma National back into town.

"We do troop escorts all the time (when fallen soldiers return home in a casket)," Anello said, barely audible over the roar of his motor. "But this was fun."

Then he smiled, gunned his engine and drove away.

(Petaluma resident Michael Shapiro is a sports copy editor and entertainment writer for The Press Democrat. Contact michael.shapiro@pressdemocrat.com.)

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