By Mark Colley
Luc Hamel never expected to get this far.
The manager of the Ottawa West Twins went into the 2022 Little League season expecting little from his team. Hamel had a group of 11- and 12-year-old kids playing together in 2021, but there was no provincial or national championship. The last time the provincial championship was held was 2019.
Hamel’s low expectations started to shift as his team had a strong first tournament, then another. He started to realize this group of kids might be better than he thought.
“As the season started, they really bonded as a group,” Hamel said. “Our team leaders are very supportive of everyone. We have no egos on the team and they sort of gelled as a group.”
The cohesive atmosphere took them all the way to the provincial semifinals at Eagles Nest Field in Barrhaven, where the Twins ultimately lost to the East Nepean Eagles 8-4.
The Ancaster Diamondbacks, the only team at the tournament more than 100 kilometres away from downtown Ottawa, won the tournament with a 14-4 victory over East Nepean on Friday and booked their ticket to nationals in Calgary from Aug. 4 to 13.
The Cornwall River Rats also made the semifinals, losing 7-5 to Ancaster. The Perth Royals and Orleans Red Sox finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in round robin action and did not qualify for the tournament playoffs.
Ottawa West and East Nepean’s semifinal battle was a rematch of the final game of the tournament round robin on Wednesday. Using its explosive offense and aggressive running game — the Twins seemed to steal second base at every opportunity — Ottawa West beat the Eagles 7-6.
It was a narrow game that mattered little to Ottawa West, who had already clinched a spot in the semifinals. As a result, some of the Twins’ top players — including their primary catcher Nick Hiart, who Hamel said was one of the team’s leaders — were rested in preparation for the semis. Hiart started at left field instead.
“I think it showed the resiliency of our team and the kids stepped up and made the plays and we managed to pull it out,” Hamel said after the win. “Every game we’ve played with these guys has been a one-run game, so it was nothing new.”
It wasn’t a one-run game in the semifinals, when the Eagles managed to shut down Ottawa West’s offense. It was only the second time in six games that the Twins scored fewer than seven runs.
Ottawa West averaged just under 10 runs per game in the round robin, the most of the six teams. That included a 10-0 win on Sunday over the eventual-champion Diamondbacks.
Hamel said he spent the season throwing batting practice at the highest velocity the players would see in-game. That way, everything would seem slow by comparison.
“Because of that, we don’t strike out much, and at this age, when you put the ball in play and hit the ball hard, something’s good is going to happen,” Hamel said.
Hamel is in his eighth season of coaching Little League and fourth in Ottawa after moving here from British Columbia for a job at StatsCan. While a team Hamel coached made it to nationals in 2019, he said the loose atmosphere of this year’s team makes it “the nicest group of kids I’ve ever had.”
Being back in action for a real season for the first time since 2019 was an added bonus.
“It’s been the most satisfying and fulfilling experience so far, just because the last two years were such a disappointment and it finally feels like normal,” Hamel said. “We’re all having more fun than we normally would have because in comparison, it’s so great.”
It was a busy week in Nepean as the Eagles were also playing host to the Little League Canada Intermediate-level nationals around the same time. The Intermediate Eagles went 3-2 in the round robin to reach the semi-finals, where they fell to the Lethbridge Lumberjacks, who finished as runners-up behind Quebec’s Diamond Baseball.
The Eagles Juniors have just begun play at their nationals, set to represent Ontario in Lethbridge.
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