Aussies enjoy their second trip to Williamsport
By JACK DOUGHERTY
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — Ethan Treble, Harrison Wheeldon and Stephen Courtney liked the Little League World Series so much they decided to try it again.
For the vast majority of Little Leaguers, suiting up in South Williamsport for the World Series is nothing more than a pipe dream. But three players from Australia are on their second trip to central Pennsylvania.
Their Hills Little League team from Sydney made its LLWS debut in 2016, and won Australia’s qualifying tournament again this year to earn another appearance in South Williamsport.
“Last year was more overwhelming because we didn’t know what was in front of us,” said Wheeldon, who started at shortstop in Australia’s 8-0 loss to powerhouse Japan on Friday.
He said this year has been all about having fun and enjoying the experience because it’s the last time for him. He will age out of Little League this coming year.
“My favorite part is meeting and interacting with other kids from around the world,” said Courtney, who started at third base against Japan. “I was just so excited to be able to do that again.”
Boys from nine different countries and five continents play in the tournament, with the teams staying in barracks at the Little League complex. Two teams stay in each building, with an international and American club paired up in every one. The Australians are living with the team from Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
Many players like Wheeldon and Courtney relish the experiences off the field at the LLWS, but Treble’s focus is solely on the diamond. Sounding a little like a pro, he said he isn’t satisfied with the team’s two-win performance a year ago.
“We’re here to play. It’s all about the baseball,” said Treble, who started at first base on Friday. “I don’t care about the other stuff. I just care about coming here and hitting some base hits.”
Chris Swan, an assistant coach for last year’s team, also is making his second appearance in South Williamsport, but this time as the manager. He said the three returning players are just as wide-eyed as the first time around.
“You tend to forget these guys are 11, 12 and 13 years old and they’re out here in front of thousands of people,” Swan said. “If you’ve done it four times you could come back and it’s still fresh for you.”
Swan said he wants Wheeldon, Courtney, and Treble to make the most of their second experience because virtually no one has been in their position.
“Just to be here is an unbelievable experience,” Swan said. “They’re going to go home not just better baseballers but just better people. This grows character. That’s what it’s all about.”
Australia doesn’t offer nearly as many opportunities for young baseball players as there are in the United States. High schools and colleges in Australia don’t even have baseball teams. The only way to play competitively after Little League is to join a club team, which plays once a week on Saturdays.
Only 30 Australians have ever played in the major leagues. Rugby and cricket have controlled the Australian sports scene for decades, but these aren’t your typical kids down under.
They have been an integral part of the Australian youth movement that has inspired more involvement in the sport in the last decade. Baseball has increased in popularity in the country so much that the LLWS granted Australia its own region in the annual tournament in 2013.
By contrast, the other returning team this year, Italy, plays in a region that covers Europe and Africa.
All three returning players from Sydney have their sights set on returning to America to play collegiate baseball and making it to the majors someday.
They all developed a passion for the sport at a young age. Treble even remembers the exact moment when he fell in love.
“It was on ESPN, in fact. My dad flicked on the telly and it was Cincinnati versus Dodgers,” Treble said. “I was just hooked.”
Jack Dougherty is a journalism student at Penn State. Penn State is partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2017 Little League World Series.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.