Canada looking to get to the final

There are tough choices every year at the Little League World Series.

Play with new gifted equipment or use the bats that brought you. Choose visitors or home dugout for the pregame coin flip. Pool or no pool.

For the last one, put White Rock’s South Surrey Little Leaguers from British Columbia in the “no pool” group. But not because of the distraction some teams think it brings.

“Too cold. Went in there once,” said outfielder and pitcher Nathaniel Factor.

That’s the answer one might expect from a tropical team from the Caribbean or Latin America, players who occasionally wear thermal long sleeves in the 80-degree weather up here. But not from a country a month from preseason hockey practice.

Hockey for these players though is like swimming right now: an afterthought. Today is the first of two chances to become Canada’s first team in the International finals since Langley, B.C., lost there in 1998. Stoney Creek of Ontario in 1965 is the only Canadian team to reach the final, and it lost.

White Rock plays three-time LLWS champion Tokyo Kitasuna today at 3 p.m. with a berth in Saturday’s International final at stake.

A loss would bring a game Thursday vs. Mexico with the winner still advancing to Saturday and the de facto Final Four of this modified double-elimination tournament.

While a Canada win today would be considered an upset given historical results, it would be the second consecutive year the country beat a Japanese team. Last year, Hastings Community LL of Vancouver beat Chofu LL of Tokyo, 10-4, to open the tournament. That team dropped its next two, but was a breakthrough of sorts for a country that generally has the talent to match the northern U.S. entries but never gets to play them until it’s consolation crossover time because the international bracket is usually so difficult at the top.

“We just wanted to get a win, and now that we have, we hope to do better and play again,” said Factor.

Canada advanced through the first two rounds with a 12-2 win over Emilia, Italy, and then 7-3 over Maracaibo, Venezuela. This came after an 8-0 run through the Canadian national tournament in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Reece Usselman, who threw the Canadian national final, started the opener and relieved vs. Venezuela on Sunday, is eligible to pitch again. Reid Hefflick, who started Sunday and threw as the Pittsburgh Pirates arrived prior to the MLB Little League Classic, can return after today. Chase Marshall and Sheldyn Scott also pitched vs. Italy.

“Oh, my. The Pirates were looking at me. I was trying to stay focused and I did a good job with that,” said Hefflick. “I didn’t know our team would do this well. It’s been amazing and nothing comes easy against the best in the world.”

Matteo Manzi said he received a ball from Pirates first baseman Josh Bell, who homered later that night, and he also met pitcher Jameson Taillon.

“They said they’d root for us,” said Manzi.

That wasn’t the only thrill this week. They’ve taken constant selfies with fans, signed so many autographs they lost count and met players from the 1982 LLWS Canadian entry that included former NHL player Pierre Turgeon.

“It was an honor,” said assistant coach Emmanuel Factor. “To shake hands with them, you rarely get to see superstar hockey players in Canada. You watch them all the time, but to meet them in a sport like that, all the better.”

Yes, hockey. The biggest sport in Canada, and ultimately one that draws many of the nation’s best athletes. Manager Ryan Hefflick hoped more Canadian LLWS success stories might help baseball in that regard.

“They talked how Major League Baseball approached Little League to grow the sport at the grassroots level. Soccer’s a big one too, taking players from baseball,” said Hefflick. “It’s not just playing the game, but mingling with kids, talk about what it was like.

“Maybe kids see that and think what an amazing opportunity it is to stick with baseball. Hockey’s predominant for many guys on the team, and this week may be the last time many of them play baseball,” said Hefflick. “It’s unfortunate, but maybe if Major League Baseball can do that, maybe at least get a few kids doing select baseball later on as opposed to hockey or basketball.”