SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Saturday is the big day, the U.S. championship game that will decide which American team will represent its country in the Little League World Series championship on Sunday.
But on Friday, it was time for a little relaxation. So the Little Leaguers from Billings joined a few other teams at a picnic at the Wheel Inn, about 30 miles outside of South Williamsport, Pa.
“It was fun,” said Dawson Smith, Big Sky first-baseman and outfielder. “We played games and we ate hot dogs and chips.”
Cole McKenzie, who helped pitch Big Sky to the U.S. championship game with a 1-0 win over the Ocean View All-Stars from California on Wednesday, tried his hand at horseshoes.
“I got one ringer, I guess, whatever you call it,” he said.
Asked if being a pitcher helped to land the horseshoe squarely around the metal stake, he said “yeah,” and grinned.
Later in the afternoon, manager Gene Carlson, along with the players who were dressed in their uniforms, were scheduled to meet with ESPN. After dinner, they planned to take a light practice.
Saturday’s game, which starts at 1 p.m. Mountain time in Lamade Stadium, will be a rematch between Ocean View, the West Region champs and Big Sky, the Northwest champs. It will be broadcast on ABC.
The two teams became fast friends in San Bernardino, Calif., where their respective regional tournaments were held at the same time. The players stayed in a dorm separated only by a door, and a big-screen TV and Xbox on the California side brought the boys together.
When they met Wednesday, both sides were focused on the game. The two teams focused on defense, and a 0-0 game after six innings led to an extra-inning home run in the bottom of the seventh by Big Sky player Ben Askelson.
The Huntington Beach, Calif., team played Thursday night against hometown favorites, the Keystone Little League All-Stars from Harney County, Pa., in a loser-out game. Ocean View beat Keystone 2-0 to advance to Saturday’s championship game.
Whichever team wins on Saturday will go on to play in Sunday’s World Series Championship game at 10 a.m. Mountain time against the winner of Saturday’s game between Japan and Mexico.
A consolation game between the loser of Saturday’s U.S. game and the loser of Saturday’s international game has been canceled because of Hurricane Irene.
That means that if the Billings team loses Saturday, their run at the Little League World Series will be done.
Big Sky Manager Gene Carlson said Friday that he hasn’t decided who will pitch in Saturday’s game. He expects his team will play at the level they did in their last game.
“We’re just going to have to play our best game, like on Wednesday, to beat them,” Carlson said. “That’s good pitching, good defense and timely hitting.”
Asked about the quick thinking his players show on the field, Carlson called them “smart players.”
“They know the situation,” he said. “They just know what to do. They all have good baseball sense.”
Among the thousands who will be on hand to watch the Big Sky All-Stars will be Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. Rehberg will be traveling with his wife, Jan, and his son, A.J., and daughter, Elsie, and other Montanans from Washington, D.C.
Elsie Rehberg knows some players on the team, and Dani Kieckbusch, Connor Kieckbusch’s mom, was Elsie’s fourth-grade teacher, Rehberg said in a news release.
“I promised my daughter that we’d go to the game if they made it to the national championship,” he said. “And after that amazing win on Wednesday, we booked the tickets.”
Some of the Big Sky players went to Thursday night’s game to watch the Huntington Beach team take on Keystone. Patrick Zimmer said he wasn’t rooting for one team over the other, but he did enjoy the game.
“Obviously it’s more fun to be on the field,” Patrick said. “But it’s just nice just to relax and not have any stress.”
Connor Kieckbusch echoed Patrick’s thoughts, saying he liked watching the game, but that he enjoys the thrill of playing even more. Connor also said he has confidence in the way he and his teammates play.
“We never give up and we always play our best,” he said.