BANGOR, Maine — Little League Baseball was introduced in Australia just nine years ago, but the country is the now the fastest-growing region in the world for that franchise, with 11,645 participants in 2016, according to Baseball Australia.
By 2013, Australia was granted its own region by Little League International for qualification to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
That growth has spawned even more expansion, initially the Junior League division for players who had aged out of Little League and now Senior League for the first time this year.
Melbourne, Australia, the Asia-Pacific champion that has advanced to the Senior League World Series championship game on Saturday, is an example of that rapid ascent.
“At the Little League level it’s incredible,” said Australia coach Rick Wills. “It’s basically doubling every year at the lower levels, and for the higher levels we’re trying to carry that through and keep the kids in the game as long as possible and create as many opportunities as we can in the next level up. We don’t want to lose kids once they get out of Senior League or Big League, once they get out of that 17-18 age group.”
The early results have been impressive. Australia will send teams to the 2016 Little League, Junior League and Senior League World Series — and has become the first Asia-Pacific representative country to reach the SLWS final since the tournament was moved to Bangor in 2002.
“This is our first time in Senior League and we’re two or three years into Junior League, so we’re going in the right direction,” said Wills. “We’ve just got to make sure we maintain it all the way through to the top level.”
The Southern Mariner Senior Leaguers won seven straight games during an unbeaten run through its national tournament at Lismore, New South Wales, then went 5-0 and outscored their opposition 82-5 at the Asia-Pacific regional at Makati City, Philippines, in mid-July.
Australia received an automatic qualifying berth for the Junior League World Series for the first time this year, and there is talk about a similar automatic World Series berth coming at the Senior League level — though the Southern Mariners haven’t needed it this week.
Thursday’s last-inning rally against Bronco-Hermon featured an RBI single by Jordan Barnett, a two-run single by Jack Dunn and a fielder’s choice grounder to third by J.P. Callil that initially produced one run and a forceout at second base — and when the transfer for a subsequent throw was bobbled, Dunn raced home with the winning run.
Callil, who came on to play shortstop in the sixth inning, worked the count to 2-2 and then fouled off several pitches before putting the ball in play.
“Obviously I was quite nervous but after every pitch I kind of looked at the flag,” he said, “thinking about our coach back home, he’s dying to be here. I just kind of thought I’d do it for him.”
That coach back home is manager Jack Larner, who is recovering from surgery to remove three cancerous tumors that were discovered in his leg in late February. His picture is put up in the Australia dugout before each SLWS game.
But Larner has still been able to follow his team — and Thursday night’s game — closely from oceans away.
“It is all a bit overwhelming, a bit surreal,” Larner told the Herald Sun of Melbourne several hours after the game. “I was able to speak with [assistant coach] Brendan [Wilson] and he said it was just a crazy last inning.’’
Now the Mariners must take one final step to secure their country’s first Little League title — a championship game that will be televised back home at 4 a.m. Sunday local time. Larner will be watching, as will other fans during an early morning gathering at the Dingley (Victoria) Baseball and Softball Club.
The U.S. Central champs will be favored based on their undefeated tournament record and earlier victory over their championship-game foe, but the Australians see an opportunity to make some history for their country.
“The first game I felt like we had it, and we sort of relaxed a bit and then they took it to us,” said Barnett. “To their credit they hit and hit and hit.
“To come out as underdogs and beat them would be incredible.”