Major All Stars set for BC championship

BC Little League Major championship in Vancouver starts on Saturday.

The Trail Major All Stars are poised and polished and ready to compete at the B.C. Little League Major championship in South Vancouver starting on Saturday.

The Major All Stars have been working hard in preparation for the week-long provincial tournament against some of the best teams in Canada, and are coming off a strong third-place finish at the Chewelah Chataqua Little League tournament on the weekend.

“We’re a pretty good team this year,” said returning player Kai Birks at the first of two final practices on Thursday, before leaving with the team for Vancouver on Friday. “We’ve been practicing cutoffs, watch the play, talk a lot – it’s make all the simple plays to make the team better.”

Coach D. J. Ashman agrees with Birks, adding that he is impressed with the team’s progress since it formed in early June. And while Ashman is optimistic, his eighth trip to the provincials has taught him to keep expectations in check.

“Obviously we’re hopeful to get to the semifinal and hoping to compete,” said Ashman. “The kids are doing some exceptional things on the field. I mean they are getting it at a very young age.”

This year’s squad is a mix of youth and experience with six 11-year-old players and six 12-year-olds. Led by veteran pitchers Birks and Luke Miracle, the team has depth on the mound, and both power and a balanced hitting attack at the plate.

“As two returners, they are going to be key contributors to our success,” said Ashman. “This is close to probably the most depth in pitching that we’ve had in a while.”

And like most Little League championships, pitching is key, and particularly how coaches manage their starters through the early matches.

“If you want to pitch a whole game, you have to sit for like four or five days,” said Miracle. “So the coaches kind of have to make a decision before you pitch. If they want you to use you for 65 pitches, you sit three or four days.”

In last year’s tournament, Miracle threw 88 pitches in one game, and was unable to pitch for five days.

So planning the rotation relies as much on coaching strategy as it does execution; this year’s addition of the Major O’s is in a good position.

“We have probably six or seven guys (who pitch), and in the provincials we’ll probably need every one,” said Miracle.

It was South Vancouver’s ace Joseph Sinclair, who was used sparingly during the tournament and pitched the 2014 final, giving up just two hits, no walks, while striking out 11 batters in an 8-0 shutout over White Rock.

Trail had actually beaten finalist White Rock in the round robin, 11-5, and were 3-1 to start the tournament. They looked to be shoe-ins for the semifinals, but the team dropped their next two games and lost a berth by virtue of a head-to-head loss to Beacon Hill earlier in the round robin.

Nevertheless, Trail did tie for fourth, one of their best performances in recent years, and in any other provincial tournament three wins would have got them into the semis.

“We feel we’re getting to the stage now where we can compete with these guys on a Tier 1 level, even though we don’t have the same numbers,” said Ashman. “But there’s always miracles and Cinderella stories so we’re just hoping to be that team one of these years.”

Two-a-day practices, rigorous yet upbeat workouts, have the kids turning slick double plays, and making intelligent decisions, as well as pounding the ball – the result of a ramped up pitching machine where the team practices hitting 70-mph fast balls.

The enthusiasm is catchy, as coaches Ashman, Jason Startup, and Mike Boisvert shout out constant support and instruction during practice.

The trio has been a positive and inspiring example, while teaching the game and working the kids hard, they also make it fun, and that seems to be the best recipe for success.

“We’re doing really good, and that’s the bottom line,” said Ashman. “I like the mindset of the kids, there’s something here that feels just a little bit different . . . As coaches we can’t wait to get going.”

For Birks, it has been an enjoyable two years playing on the All Star team, but like his coach, his expectations on how the team will perform at the B.C.s are modest.

“I just want to play my hardest, and just hope for the best,” said Birks. “Oh, and have fun.”

For Miracle, well, he’s already looking beyond the provincials.

“I’d like to do as good as last year, or maybe better,” said Miracle. “Well, going to the Little League World Series would be nice too.”

The Orioles open the tournament on Saturday against Lynn Valley at 9 a.m. and play Sunday at 3 p.m. versus Beacon Hill. The round robin wraps up on Friday with the semifinals on Saturday and the finals on Sunday.