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From 'Down Under' to Williamsport

Updated 10:51 am, Monday, August 19, 2013

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  • Players from Perth, Australia, display their nation's flag during the Grand Slam Parade in downtown Williamsport, Pa. Wednesday evening. Perth is the first Australian team ever to play in the Little League World Series. Photo: Associated Press / Associated Press
    Players from Perth, Australia, display their nation's flag during the Grand Slam Parade in downtown Williamsport, Pa. Wednesday evening. Perth is the first Australian team ever to play in the Little League World Series. Photo: Associated Press

 

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SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Glen Tovey already had one dream die on the diamond. But the manager of the Perth Metro Australia Little League team wasn't going to let another one slip through his hands.

On June 5, Perth made history, becoming the first team from "The Land Down Under" to punch its ticket to the Little League World Series.

After a 35-hour trip that included three flights and a bus ride, Perth was the first of the eight international teams to arrive in South Williamsport this summer -- 11,490 miles from home.

In a nation where baseball fanatics are few, Tovey knew the odds were long that a team from his coastal metropolis would ever step foot on Little League's historic grounds here -- and even then, not for several more years. He had already had his baseball dreams crushed once before -- in the 1990s when he came halfway around the world to play for the College of San Mateo in California, only to sustain a career-ending knee injury while training.

Where baseball ranks in Australia has been a factor working against a trip to the LLWS.

"It certainly isn't in the top five sports," Tovey said. "We're probably pushing 10th or 11th in terms of national interest. However, those who are involved in the baseball community, we spread the word the best we can."

With sports like Australian rules football and rugby trouncing America's pastime for popularity in Australia, qualifying for the LLWS was traditionally far more complicated. Rather than host their own regional, Australian teams had to compete in the Asia-Pacific bracket against the likes of baseball hotbeds Chinese Taipei and Korea.

Tovey, a development and coaching officer for a group of club teams, met with a district administrator last September concerning the prospect of Australia -- with a population of 21 million and nearly 400 Little Leagues -- having its own regional. He was often told that the nation needed to show "continuous growth" in baseball to host a regional.

"I said, `Son, one day Australia's going to get direct entrance into the Little League World Series, but I think it will probably be in three to four years, projecting on the 380 teams, where we were," Tovey said, referring a conversation with his son, Michael.

Finally, this year, the Aussies were granted their long-awaited chance. The country was given a regional of its own -- it featured 20 teams, held June 1-5 -- and the teams that formerly made up the Middle East-Africa region were moved into other regions.

Perth Metro Central traveled to Queensland in northeast Australia, in a time zone three hours ahead of Perth. Many of his team's games were at 8:30 a.m. -- 5:30 a.m. Perth time -- so Tovey asked his players to wake up at 5 a.m. the week before their first game to reset their biological clocks.

On Thursday afternoon, the team worked out on a practice field a few hours before its opening game. The complex's two stadiums, Lamade and Volunteer, towered a few hundred yards away. Whatever pregame nerves the team might've had weren't noticeable. More than anything, they were humbled to be present at youth baseball's biggest stage.

"It's been a dream come true. We can't believe that we're actually here," coach Wayne Shaldon said. "The dream just keeps going on. Every day's better than the last."

The players, all of whom participated in a colorful opening ceremony with seven other countries and eight other United States teams at Volunteer Stadium, were in awe of the complex.

"I thought it would be a big, big, big place," outfielder Caydyn Hancock said, "with people everywhere, and cameras. I didn't expect all of this. It's amazing."

Hancock added, "I'm actually real excited. I finally got to step on the dirt and grass."

On the field later Thursday, things would not go Perth's way. The Aussies lost 12-0 to Mexico in a game called by the mercy rule after 3 1/2 innings.

Tovey believes Australia "probably should've" had a chance at the LLWS before this year, noting that the country has more Little League teams than Japan, a baseball powerhouse. But he's also grateful for the opportunity his team now has.

While he was in the U.S. in 1997, Tovey went to a Major League World Series game between the Indians and Marlins at Cleveland's Jacobs Field. So sports pageantry in Williamsport would not be something new.

"I had a fairly high expectation of what it would be like (in Williamsport)," he said. "It has blown it away. I could not even comprehend it would be like this. It's a beautiful place with beautiful people. They've been so warm and receiving, not just to us, but to everyone who's been here.

"It's like heaven on Earth."

It's all still a dream for Australia.

"I never ever thought we'd get this far. Not here," Shaldon said. "Dream's come true, and we believe that. We've dreamt big and it's come up for us. And we'll keep dreaming."

dbonjour@scni.com; 203-255-4561 ext. 114; twitter.com/DougBonjour

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