By Martin Cleary
When Matt Beelen was 18 years old, he represented Canada at the under-19 Big League World Series in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as a pitcher/third baseman for the Ottawa West Crusaders.
“We did well, winning our first two games (in the international bracket) and losing two after. Every game was close,” Beelen recalled in a phone interview on Tuesday.
“It was a pretty cool experience. That was the highlight of my baseball career growing up. I played for East Nepean Eagles and we had some good teams, but we couldn’t get it done (to reach an age-group World Series).”
Well, 26 years after experiencing his only World Series as a player with the Ottawa District 2 all-star team, Beelen is returning this week to the apex of Little League baseball. But this time, Beelen will serve as the head coach of the East Nepean senior team, which won the Canadian championship in dramatic fashion Monday night on its home field.
It was the first time the East Nepean organization or an Ottawa team had claimed the national senior title (for age 15-16). The Eagles had won the Canadian majors title in 2004 and 2013 and represented Canada at the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
After posting a 2-3 record and finishing third in the preliminary round-robin during the eight-day national championship at the Nepean Sportsplex’s Hamilton Yards diamond, the Eagles were unbeatable in the playoffs. They will wear Canadian colours at the Senior Little League Baseball World Series, which begins Saturday in Easley, South Carolina.
Played under threatening skies and thunderstorm conditions at times, the Eagles survived three weather delays in the championship final. The game was played in front of an estimated 1,000 fans, who filled the stands behind home plate and streamed down the first- and third-base lines cheering for both sides.
The game was stopped for 45 minutes in the top of the third inning because of thunder and lightning. Shortly after the game resumed, a heavy downpour stopped play again for another 45 minutes. A lightning flash on the field halted the game for a third time for 30 minutes.
The thrice-interrupted championship game, which had to be played no later than Monday, lasted three hours and 45 minutes. The East Nepean championship organizing committee needed to have a champion declared Monday night because Little League Canada had to know the names of the players and coaches to complete the travel arrangements.
The Eagles players and coaches are scheduled to leave Wednesday for the World Series on an afternoon flight to Toronto and then fly to Atlanta, where they’ll take a bus to Easley.
Nolan Beelen “pitched the game of his life,” said his father Matt, while Reid Maika escaped a big threat in the last inning. When the game finally ended, Matt Beelen had only one word to describe the feeling: “Relief.”
“This group is extremely tight and has played together basically since they were six years old. We wanted to build up this team to when they were 12-year-olds as we identified them as a special group,” added Beelen, who thought that team of Eagles players had a good chance to represent Canada at the Majors Little League Baseball World Series in 2020.
“But COVID shut us down and we lost our shot at Williamsport. That was a little devastating. But most of the team stuck together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also cancelled the 2021 Little League Baseball season, when those Eagles’ players would have been in the Intermediate Division (age 13). Then they finished third at last year’s nationals.
When the 2023 senior season started for the Eagles, Beelen welcomed back 10 players from the 2022 junior team and added another three to create his 13-player roster. The Eagles won the Ontario District 2 (Ottawa West) title by capturing three straight games, but were ineligible for the Ontario championships, since East Nepean was playing host to the Canadian championships.
Besides winning their spring season in Ottawa, the Eagles entered two tournaments and had a full schedule of exhibition games. Their record this season is 39 wins, eight losses and two ties.
As they entered the Canadian championship, Beelen knew his players could compete against the other regional teams because of their pitching depth and defence, despite being one of the youngest teams. The Eagles roster has 11 players who are 15 years old and two at 16.
“They are a resilient bunch, a tight team,” a proud Beelen explained. “We talk about leaning on each other. If one is down, the other picks him up. If someone makes an error, someone will step up on the next play and bail him out.”
The Eagles will head into the World Series with three strong right-handed pitchers – Nolan Beelen, Maika and Charlie McDougall, who is Matt Beelen’s nephew. Catcher Justin Morris and second baseman Jacob Elyea also are key players in the Eagles’ lineup.
“Our strengths are pitching and defence,” coach Beelen noted. “We grind at the bats, get guys on base and make pitchers pitch. We ride with our pitchers and trust them to get the job done.”
As the Eagles prepare for their first World Series game on Saturday against Kennemerland of Haarlem, The Netherlands – the Europe-Africa representative – Beelen will speak to his players many times and there will be a common theme.
“Go and have the time of your life,” Beelen said with enthusiasm. “Winning down there is the second or third goal. The goal is to have fun and meet kids from around the world. Not everyone can say they’ve played in or gone to a World Series. Enjoy every moment.”
– with files from Sam Loveys
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