Little League is coming up big Down Under

It might not have a broadcast deal to rival the National Rugby League, facilities that come close to Collingwood's Westpac Centre or the following of the Wallabies, but baseball -- specifically Little League -- is one of the fastest growing sports in Australia.

The first Little League-affiliated leagues in Australia weren't established until 2007, when Little League International and Baseball Australia began working together. But the sport has grown rapidly Down Under. After five years, Australia had more chartered Little League programs than Japan, and the country was granted direct entry to the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, starting in 2013, when Little League officially separated Australia from the Asia-Pacific region.

Today, more than 4,500 11- and 12-year-old Australian kids are registered participants on one of the country's 477 teams.

"Outside of the United States and Canada, we have more participants in Little League than anyone else in the world," says Mathew Sundstrom, the head of Little League and National Championships for Baseball Australia. "Our participation in the program has been rapidly growing ever since the introduction of our older divisions, which now allow under-15s and -17s to join the program.

"As a result, the National Championship has doubled in teams, from 10 to 20, which highlights the growth and retention rate for baseball in this country."

Hills Little League from New South Wales won the country's national championship in June and an automatic berth in the World Series, which will be played Aug. 18-28. Hills defeated another New South Wales team, Central Coast, 7-3 for the title. The champions scored 75 runs in six games during the tournament while allowing only four.

"Hills, who are from the northwest region of Sydney, qualified for the nationals and then, in June at the Little League National Championships, went through the tournament undefeated," Sundstrom said.

Hills prevailed 7-3 in the final to book its place in Williamsport. That means a team from Australia's east coast will appear in the LLWS for the second consecutive year. Hills was just two wins away from reaching the Little League World Series last year but fell to eventual Australia representative Cronulla by two runs in the region semifinals.

Despite the rapid growth, some things about baseball are still different Down Under. Hills manager Les Stockdale allows that the velocity of the pitching in the U.S. is a lot higher than in Australia. Sundstrom acknowledges that Hills -- which will have a 65-day layoff before its first game in Williamsport and will travel farther (9,793 miles) to the Little League World Series than any other team -- faces a daunting task in Williamsport. But he believes this year's squad is the best Australian team to ever compete at the World Series.

"It's a massive task. It's a very big stage over there, and the biggest crowd this team has played in front of was about 150 people," he said. "It will be the first time they've played in front of 10,000 people -- not to mention the 40,000 walking around the complex.

"They've definitely got the potential to challenge and go deep into the tournament. The furthest we've been the last two years is winning one game before being knocked out."

Stockdale says his team's immediate objective is to win two games, starting with the opener. Australia has never won its inaugural game of the tournament. It opens the Little League World Series against Italy at 5 p.m. ET Thursday. That is the first meeting between the teams at the LLWS.