For many of them, it was the biggest game of their young lives. Maybe not quite as big for the five kids on this team Am who represented Russia at the Little League World Series last year, but when you’re from Moscow and you’re playing an American team and playing an American game, the SIZE of the stage doesn’t matter, nor does the location.
It’s still U.S.-Russia, and the adrenaline rush is out of this world. We’ve grown up in a culture that makes it so, and even our younger generation feels that way, although for the most part, they’re not exactly sure why.
“I cannot explain it,” said 30-year-old Russia coach Sergey Zharov, who had three such U.S.-Russia encounters in his life before Monday. “But it’s a big, big deal to this team, and to us as coaches. Any time you beat an American team, especially at their own game, it gets noticed back home.”
Well, if they noticed back home on this occasion, they’re not happy. Defending champion Irvine, Calif., routed the team from Moscow, 10-0, to reach Tuesday’s championship game of the Sporto Vilkai Cup here in Utena. Irvine will meet host Sporto Vilkai, which routed rival Utena, 11-1, in the other semifinal. In last year’s final game, Irvine beat Sporto Vilkai, 3-2.
For the most part, we’ve become desensitized to the significance of U.S.-Russia matchups nowadays. It’s not Al Michaels calling Olympic hockey from Lake Placid anymore.
Safe to say the outcome of any U.S.-Russia competition these days is an infinitely bigger deal if you’re from Russia than if you’re from the states.
“Big things can still happen for you if you beat an American team,” said Zharov, who added that the reason the Russians came to the tournament this year was because there were two American teams. Russia beat Dublin, Calif., 8-5 earlier in the tournament.
The way the Russian players celebrated that victory that day, it was obviously more than just another win. And I suppose you could say that the way they dejectedly accepted defeat Monday, pretty much the same thing is true.
“Three hours ago, I was so hopeful we would play well,” said Zharov. “We’re very disappointed. We wanted to go 2-0 against the Americans.”
Irvine coach David Lester said his team’s focus was clearly different than Russia’s.
“Make the championship game – that was our goal,” he said. “That, and to come over here and play as many different teams as we could. It just so happens we drew Russia today, but it wasn’t a matchup we were looking at.”
In fact, Irvine had already beaten Russia here, 7-1 in a practice game before the tournament began. As such, Lester didn’t care if they drew the Russians in the tournament or not.
“No offense to the Russians,” said Lester, “but quite frankly, I would rather have played Belarus today, only because we never got a chance to play them this week.”
NOTES: We gave Lithuania’s best umpire, Arnoldas Ramanaskas, the plate for the championship game…Sunday, I mentioned that we had been joined by a fifth Lithuanian umpire, “Big Ed,” and that he was the son of our 20-year-old ump, Ed. So, naturally, I assumed the 20-year-old was a Jr. I was wrong. Father is Edmundas and the 20-year-old is Edgaras. Monday, I met the two younger boys, Edvardas and Edis. Ed, Ed, Ed, and Ed. Couldn’t make this up…The Czech team has two players whose last names are Chalupa and Moron. Couldn’t make this up, either.