The long journey to Williamsport begins this week for a handful of Semiahmoo Peninsula baseball players.
But before the team of White Rock 12-year-olds can start thinking about a return trip to the prestigious Little League World Series – White Rock represented Canada at the Pennsylvania event last year – they’ll first have to focus on opponents a little closer to home.
Beginning Saturday (July 9), the White Rock-South Surrey baseball squad will hit the field at District 3 Baseball Championships, squaring off against all-star teams from Coquitlam, Langley and Whalley. White Rock will have home-field advantage, too, with this year’s tournament set to be hosted at South Surrey Athletic Park.
And though the Little League World Series is the end goal for all four teams – “And an awesome end-goal,” says White Rock coach Glenn Kirkpatrick – members of White Rock’s team know full-well the difficulty that first faces them on their home turf.
White Rock has advanced to the World Series three times before – back to back, in 2007 and ’08, plus last summer – and each time, coaches have said advancing out of District 3 is the toughest part of the journey to Williamsport.
“It’s tough to get to, no question about it,” said Kirkpatrick, who was an assistant coach on last year’s team.
“You need to have an awfully good team (to advance), and then you need to get a few breaks along the way.
To illustrate his point, he references a game in last year’s district tournament between White Rock and Whalley.
“White Rock-Whalley is always a coin flip,” Kirkpatrick said. “Last year, in the bottom of the sixth, we hit a line-drive double down the line – it was fair by about an inch – and that won it for us. And Whalley could’ve easily done the same thing to us an inning before, so it’s always close… It’s going to be a great tournament.
“It’s just really, really hard to get out of districts. About six or seven years ago, White Rock might’ve had the best team they’ve ever had, but they never got the chance (to move on) because they got knocked out by Whalley.”
White Rock will open the District 3 tournament Sunday, July 10, at 11 a.m. against Langley, with a second game set for Monday evening against Coquitlam. Playoff games begin July 15, with the championship game scheduled for July 17 at 1 p.m.
The winner of districts will advance to provincial championships in North Vancouver in late July, and the B.C. champ then advances to nationals in early August, which are also set to be played in Vancouver, hosted by Hastings Little League. The winner at nationals earns the right to represent Canada at the Little League World Series later that month.
In most cases, White Rock’s 12-year-old all-star squad features an all-new roster each summer, with the previous year’s players having graduated to an older division. This year, however, two players – shortstop Kai Cumiskey and second baseman Nathan Kirkpatrick – are back from last year’s team that won a national title in Ottawa.
“It’s very cool for them, to get another chance at it,” the coach said.
“They bring a little confidence to the team. And it’s funny, they bring a little professionalism to the ballpark, too, which is a bit of an interesting thing to say about 12-year-olds. But they’ve been there, and they’re a bit more ‘all-business’ than some others. They bring the intensity up, for sure.”
This year’s team is built quite differently than last year’s, Kirkpatrick added.
In 2015, the team was buoyed by a number of power hitters, as well as stud pitcher Matthew Wilkinson, who famously struck out 16 batters in five innings – in one inning he struck out four, after one would-be out made it to first on a third strike wild pitch.
This year, the team will rely on a slew of quality pitchers, good defence and speed, Kirkpatrick said.
“We have to play a little bit of a different game. It’s going to be line-drive hitting and running hard. Last year, we could make two errors in the field, but it didn’t matter because we’d come back and hit four home runs in the next inning,” he said.
“We won’t be mashing like that this year, but we’re still a very, very good team.”
Without looking too far ahead, Kirkpatrick – as well as the two returning players – did admit that memories from last year’s run have started to percolate in his mind. Namely, their whirlwind one-day journey from Ottawa to Williamsport, Penn., host site of the Little League World Series.
“We’d just finished the last game, and they told us our bus was leaving for Williamsport in three hours. We’d already checked out of our hotel – you have to do that. If you plan to stay an extra night, it tells everybody that you’re planning on losing (and not leaving for the worlds immediately),” he laughed.
“We had to go back to the hotel, and pay them a few hundred bucks to let the kids back into their rooms so they could shower and change, then we jumped on the bus for nine or 10 hours.
“But it was the happiest bus ride you’ve ever been on in your life.”