Seeing players happy makes trip worthwhile for Australian coach

Australia’s manager knows what it’s like to be in this area for the Little League World Series.

He knows what the feeling is like seeing Lamade Stadium for the first time, being in the dugout, seeing the thousands of fans watching. He’s been here before, actually just last year.

While an assistant last year, Chris Swan is the manager this year for Sydney, Australia.

And don’t get him wrong, he enjoyed every second of being in South Williamsport again this year. But for Swan, he said it was moreso seeing the reaction of the players and seeing their faces light up.

When the Grand Slam Parade happened on Wednesday, Swan couldn’t help but smile as he saw the players on their float light up seeing the huge crowds lining West Fourth Street, or when a player looked up and saw their parents at the Genetti waving to them.

It’s that kind of experience Swan soaked up this year.

“I guess this year I’ve taken a seat back and sort of let the boys take it in as much (as they could) because I know what to expect. What I look forward to most is their reactions, their faces. On the parade, seeing their faces when they see their parents hiding up in the Genetti. Their faces when they see the stadium. That’s what I was looking forward to this year,” Swan said. “Last year was more about the experience in general, but this year was more taking back and waiting for their reactions and how they’re going to play, how they’re going to feel. Unbelievable experience for Round 2. I can only hope to come back again.”

Hills Little League from Sydney, Australia, is experiencing a rare repeat berth at the Little League World Series, the first time a team from Australia has accomplished said feat. It’s an impressive feat given the Australian Region was only formed in 2013 and that the first Little League-affiliated leagues didn’t get established in the country until 2007.

Three players from that team in 2016 are back again this year in first baseman Ethan Treble, shortstop Harrison Wheeldon and pitcher Stephen Courtney.

“It’s hard because you still ride the high of last year and you’re here again. I forgot the enormity of where we are and what we’re doing here,” Swan said. “You forget that appreciation for how big it is. To come here once is a dream come true. To come here twice is unbelievable.”

This year’s trip wasn’t as successful if you go by wins compared to last year. Australia began this season with two losses before winning the consolation game on Tuesday morning in an 11-7 back-and-forth contest with South Dakota as relief pitcher Tom Stancic threw four innings of relief work, striking out nine. Australia won its opener in 2016 over Italy before falling to Panama, 3-2, and defeating Curacao, 2-1, in the consolation bracket.

But to get back to the Little League World Series is something Swan sees as improvement in the sport of baseball in Australia. Baseball is far from the most popular sport in Australia, but getting back to the Series is showing the game is starting to increase with popularity in kids.

“It’s definitely gaining momentum. The numbers are gradually increasing. It’s not a massive increase, but what we’re seeing is more kids making it their dominant sports, so kids now are putting actual work in outside of their regular training session,” Swan said. “Baseball’s now becoming their major focus, not the other way around (with it being a secondary sport) because everybody sees this and sees reality that it’s possible to achieve (LLWS berth). So they now are putting in hard work outside of regular programs.”

As for how Australia can turn the corner and start competing more at the Series with the likes of Venezuela, Japan, South Korea, the Dominican Republic and Mexico?

It starts with college.

“Our major focus at the moment is trying to get kids into college, so we’re seeing that as our best path. We get kids into education, try to work into B leagues. That’s what we’re trying to focus on at the moment,” Swan said. “I think bringing things like MLB came to us and saw where we were not too long ago, and that sparked numbers. The more Major League exposure and exposure we get, if we keep coming back here, I’m sure numbers will keep skyrocketing around our region.”