Friends meet again in U.S. championship

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The friendship started in San Bernardino. The Big Sky Little League team from Billings, Mont. won the Northwest title at the Western Regional tournament and stayed in the same dorms as Huntington Beach's Ocean View Little League team, which ended up winning the West title at the same place.

Because the Ocean View team had been able to drive to San Bernardino, they were able to pack up a television and an XBox. Because kids are kids, both teams played video games and ping pong together and generally hung out. In the meantime, both teams became great friends.

Now at noon PDT Saturday, Ocean View and Billings will play for the United States championship and the chance to play for the Little League Baseball World Series title Sunday. The winner of the International championship game at 9 a.m. PDT Saturday between Mexico and Japan will also advance to the championship.

Big Sky has already beaten Ocean View, 1-0, Wednesday when Ben Askelson stunned relief pitcher Braydon Salzman with a walk-off home run in the seventh inning.

While Big Sky earned a two-day break after the win, Ocean View had to survive another taut and well-pitched game before eliminating the Mid-Atlantic region representative, Clinton County, Pa., 2-0, Thursday night.

Ocean View Manager Jeff Pratto said he would start his son Nick Pratto on Saturday and have Salzman ready to go Sunday if Ocean View wins.

Nick Pratto has thrown seven scoreless innings so far in the tournament, including four against Big Sky. Salzman recovered from giving up the game-winning home run Wednesday by finishing off the win over Clinton County on Thursday.

Among the four teams left playing for the World Series title, Ocean View's Hagen Danner, who also struck out 12 in Thursday's win, is the leading hitter at .500, with seven hits in 14 at-bats. Danner has thrown the maximum number of pitches allowed, so he will not be on the mound for the rest of the tournament.

No team from Montana has ever advanced to the LLWS, but the Billings players said making history isn't on their minds.

"We're just having fun," catcher Andy Maehl said.

It was Maehl who described how the bonding began with the Ocean View players.

"The XBox," he said. "It was a good conversation starter. And they're really cool and fun to hang out with."

Askelson, the hero with the home run Wednesday, said it was a little hard to believe his team would be playing Ocean View for a title now.

"We talked about how awesome it would be to both go to Williamsport together and fly on the plane together," he said.

Jeff Pratto said what has impressed him so far about Big Sky is its consistency.

"On the field they're making all the necessary plays," he said. "They're getting timely hitting to keep them in games and Cole McKenzie has given them great starting pitching."

During this tournament, there's already been an earthquake felt in the area and now it's possible the effects of Hurricane Irene might arrive by Saturday. Rain and wind are predicted for Saturday and Sunday. If there are postponements, the tournament would be extended to Monday.

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