The White Rock All-Stars are preparing to take on the world, after finishing in top spot at Canadian Little League championships Saturday in Medicine Hat.
The final-game victory – 12-5 over Quebec’s Mirabel Diamond Academy – propelled the baseball squad east to Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series.
White Rock arrived at the World Series just after midnight on Monday morning, and after a few days of media responsibilities and practice, will open their schedule against Italy on Thursday.
“It’s sunk in now, and the boys are still on Cloud 9,” White Rock head coach Ryan Hefflick told Peace Arch News.
“They’re loving it. There’s a very regimented schedule here – to get photos taken and things like that – so the boys are working, doing lots of different things, but Little League knows exactly how to make the kids feel comfortable.
This year marks the fourth time in the last 10 years that White Rock has represented Canada at the LLWS, having previous played in the prestigious tournament in 2007 and ‘08, and then again in 2015.
It didn’t take long for this year’s Canadian champs to start soaking up the World Series atmosphere, Hefflick noted.
“In our dorm, we’re with Australia and (USA) West, which is Southern California. All the teams met this morning for breakfast in the same cafeteria, so that was a real treat to see everybody in their country T-shirts and uniforms. It was quite an experience for them.”
Saturday was quite an experience for the White Rock, too – right from the first pitch.
In the bottom of the first inning, Quebec’s leadoff hitter, Christophe Lepage Mancini, turned on the first pitch of the game thrown by White Rock’s Reece Usselman, sending the ball over the fence in right field.
The Mirabel, Que.-based squad tacked on two more runs before the inning was over to lead 3-0 early.
The first inning runs were the only blip on another strong pitching performance by Usselman, however, who didn’t allow another run, and finished the game with seven strikeouts over five innings of work. Reid Hefflick pitched the final inning, in relief, striking out two and allowing a late-game home run – but by then, White Rock had already built a substantial lead.
A quick between-inning pep talk was all that was required for the team to shake off the rough first inning.
“We did talk to (Reece) after that inning, and just gave him some confidence. We told him he made good pitches, and sometimes when you throw that hard, the bat hits the ball and – it’s just force times mass times acceleration. Sometimes when a kid gets a bat on a ball like that, it’s going to travel a long way,” Hefflick said.
“We told him to just keep doing what he was doing, and good things would happen – and they did. He really shut them down after that, and gave us a chance to come back and tie it, and eventually win.
“He pitched absolutely fantastic – just a fantastic game.”
Falling behind Quebec early in the game was nothing new for White Rock – the same thing happened during the teams’ round-robin matchup Wednesday, in which Quebec took a 5-0 lead only to see White Rock claw back and win 6-5.
“It was not the start that we were expecting or had hoped for, but the kids never got nervous. Obviously, they weren’t pleased, but they knew if they battled hard they could still end up on top,” Hefflick said.
“I think (Wednesday) helped. We weren’t happy with how we played in that game, but the silver lining was that it gave us a bit of adversity, which we hadn’t faced. We knew it would build some character that maybe we’d need, if we faced some tough situations.”
Trailing 3-0, White Rock got one run back in the second inning on a solo home run by Ty Fluet, and in the third frame, powered past their opponents with a six-run explosion that gave them a four-run cushion.
“We strung together a lot of quality at-bats, some singles… then we were able to get some runs in and get them a little bit on edge,” Hefflick said.
Still, the 7-3 lead did little to calm the coach’s nerves. It wasn’t until the final inning – after a Kyle Chyzowski three-run homer – that he allowed himself to think about Williamsport.
“That’s the only moment where I was able to exhale,” he said. “Then I knew we were going to win – but not until then.”
Eight of the last nine Little League World Series crowns have been won by either U.S.-based teams – A team from upstate New York won last summer – or Japanese teams, with a team from Seoul, South Korea being the only outlier, having won in 2014.
No Canadian team has ever won the tournament, and just one – from Stoney Creek, Ont. in 1965 – has ever appeared in the championship game.