Canada's Little League team looks to change the narrative at World Series
It has been almost fifty years since a Canadian team has reached the final at the Little League World Series.
Beyond the 1965 team from Stoney Creek, Ont., there have been a few highlights, including two third-place finishes in the '90s. But success in Williamsport, Pa., against the world's best has been elusive.
"For our teams, winning the Canadian Championship is a very big deal," said Joe Shea, the regional director for Little League Canada.
"They know that in Williamsport, they are competing with teams from countries with longer histories of baseball programs – Latin America, Japan, Taiwan. We have been very competitive. But the results don't really matter, it's the experience of seeing and playing on that field. They don't expect to win but they have a great time, meet new people and that's really the big thing for Canada."
Shea knows what he is talking about. He has been in the game for more than 50 years and has attended every Little League World Series since 1976.
The team from White Rock, B.C., wants to change the Canadian narrative.
'We want to do our best'
The team zipped through the preliminary rounds at the Canadian championships in Medicine Hat, undefeated. White Rock booked its ticket to Williamsport with a 12-5 win over the team from Quebec on Saturday afternoon.
"We are not going down there to go 0-3," White Rock coach Keith Fluet said. "We want to do our best to get to the semifinals, to get to the finals."
The coaches from White Rock know they face an uphill battle.
"From what I have seen over the past few years, it seems like most teams down there have five or six No. 1 starters that can come in and throw high 60s, mid 70s," Fluet said. "You have to be able to swing the bats with guys throwing that hard."
"You look at the top U.S. and international teams and they've got 13 very strong players," White Rock head coach Ryan Hefflick adds.
"There is very little drop off at end. And even though we've got skilled players deep in our lineup, the reality is it's not the same size and strength as some of those teams."
A number of factors typically work against Canada. Shea says the best teams at the World Series have been working towards the event for years and have players focused solely on baseball all year.
"In Taiwan for example, they have a much longer season, the coaches are more dedicated to baseball year round," Shea points out.
"Our kids are doing all kinds of different sports . There, there is focus on baseball at a young age. But I like the Canadian way where kids are playing all kinds of different sports."
Year-round commitment not an option
Hefflick says it's just not realistic to expect a year-round commitment in Canada.
"There is no question when you are playing 12 months a year, you have a distinct advantage," Hefflick said. "The reality is we have a lot of kids that are very focused on hockey. We have many kids where baseball is not their predominant sport."
And then of course there is the weather.
"We have been competitive with teams from the North and Central U.S. The teams from California, Florida, we are in pretty tough [against] because they have a longer season," Shea said.
"We have teams here in Canada that weren't able to get on to the field because it was wet, so we don't really get started until May."
But Shea thinks this White Rock team will be competitive and thinks they have a very good chance in their opening game against Italy next week.
Hefflick says his team is heading south with confidence, looking to write a new Canadian story.
"Getting there is always the first focus, but once you are there obviously the competitive spirit kicks in and you do your best and try and win."