THUNDER BAY, Ontario, Canada—The first six days of the World Baseball Softball Confederation's U18 World Cup have been a whirlwind for Team Canada, experiencing all of the ups and downs of international baseball on its way out of the first round of play.
The host nation's squad has been on a roller coaster, losing its first matchup in an extra-inning heartbreaker to Taiwan, having its second game postponed because of rain, and losing its next contest to Korea, sending the team on an early downward spiral, and in danger of being relegated to the consolation round.
In the team's third matchup against Italy, the Canadians didn't hold a lead until going ahead in the top of the ninth inning—a much-needed shift in momentum and a chance to see another day. They followed with a dominant win over Australia and a 15-3 mercy-rule victory over Nicaragua—in front of almost 15,000 fans—to advance to the Super Round.
"This is extra special," said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams. "You like to see the players really experience international baseball. We have a lot of great development experiences along the way, but to put on the jersey in front of the home crowd and be in a world championship, they know what it's all about now and it's something that they'll take with them the rest of their lives.
"They've got smiles on their faces, they love playing, and they're having fun playing for each other and playing for their country."
Using their final three games to secure their own fate and cement a spot in the second round of the World Cup, the Canadians believe they can use the momentum they've gained to help them as they move forward.
"It's been a good turnaround," shortstop Jason Willow said. "It's exactly what we needed, to turn around and go into the second round like this, especially after tonight with kind of an exclamation point, having a big game like this (against Nicaragua), putting up a lot of runs. We're ready for tomorrow night against USA. It's going to be a good start to the second round, and it's going to be exciting. I'm looking forward to it."
Getting a true taste of what international baseball can bring on the world stage early, the Canadian squad believes that it has learned from its experiences so far and can use that to its advantage as it moves on to play Team USA, Japan and Cuba—the teams that advanced from Group B.
"I've learned that in international baseball, every team can beat any team at this point," said righthander Eric Cerantola, who will take the mound for Canada to open the Super Round. "Even today, we kind of let Nicaragua come in a little bit, and it was a game at one point. So every team can beat any other team on any given day—it's just a matter of going out there and playing your heart out."
With each new challenge the Canadians have faced, they have grow increasingly grateful for the experience the World Cup has given them, playing at home, on the world stage, in front of the biggest crowds they've ever played for, and with friends they'll have for years to come.
"It's been amazing," Willow said. "As a team, everyone is feeling that around us. Yeah, this is going to be the last time we're together, but at the same time it's like we want to end on the best note possible.
“That's something that drive us and makes us want to play better and play for each other, so overall that's making us play better, and hopefully we can finish it well."
Added Cerantola: "This is incredible. Just the fact that you're playing international baseball against the best of other countries, and that you're at home at the same time, it's just amazing. This is the best thing I've ever done. It's everything from the games—the games are always intense—everyone's in it, everyone's playing to win, the guys are awesome, we all have the same goal in mind, and that's to win the gold medal, and the crowd has been awesome as well."
On that quest for gold, Canada will take on the three teams that advanced out of the other pool, starting with what some might consider to be biggest rival of the country north of the border: Team USA.
"We've had some great battles with them over the years," Hamilton said. "They're the standard, and in hockey, we're the standard. And it's in parallel now.
"We have a puncher's chance every opportunity we play them, both with our junior team and senior team now. We're good enough to be on the field. They have more depth and probably on paper are a little bit better (from) bottom to top, but we're good enough that on a given night, we can beat them."
Facing one of just two undefeated teams in the tournament—Korea in that category alongside the U.S.—the Canadians feel as though the pressure is on Team USA, and they don't mind pointing the spotlight in the other direction.
"I kind of like being the underdog," Willow said. "It's always good because when you're the underdogs, no one's expecting for you to win. It's the way it is. When you expect to win, things can go wrong real quick. And especially with the crowd, we've shown this past week that once we get going, I don't know what can stop us."