Eastern Shore Little Leaguers living big dream

South Caroline: The first Maryland team in the Little League World Series since 1986 opens play today a relaxed bunch.


August 21, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - In every collective endeavor, there will be those who believe and those who need proof.

In the case of the South Caroline (County) Little League team that has advanced to this weekend's World Series, count Hunter Bennett among the skeptical.

Oh sure, this group of 11- and 12-year-olds had won a state title two years ago, but getting to the World Series seemed problematical for Hunter, who just happens to be the second baseman.

"I thought we could win, but we had a lot of big heads that thought we were already going to win states," said Hunter. "I didn't think we were, because everybody thought we were. We did it, so I can't say nothing."

Truth be told, Hunter and his 11 teammates, an All-Star squad from three teams from Preston and the nearby town of Federalsburg, aren't saying a lot about the magical ride they've taken, from the state playoffs to a regional tournament to today's opening game at noon against a team from Owensboro, Ky.

For them, these games are just part of a kid's routine.

"To be honest, I didn't know how they would react, but they're treating this like we're playing Little League games at home," said manager Curtis Payne. "Yeah, they're excited and they know these games are big, but, at the same time, you don't hear anybody making a big fuss over where we're at. It's the adults that are making the fuss. For the kids, it's almost like, "Well, we've got some more ballgames to play. We're here and it's nice that we're meeting other kids."'

In the six days since they won their Mid-Atlantic regional final game in Bristol, Conn., the Caroline boys have met and befriended kids from across the United States and around the world, from places like Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Curacao, and Poland, a first-time participant here.

They've traded pins, swapped stories, eaten junk food and played all day. And, beginning with yesterday's opening-round games, they'll play baseball in front of thousands of fans and millions of television viewers, who will watch the tournament on ABC and ESPN.

In other words, they're living out every kid's dream.

"And we have cable television," said Ryan Hood, 12, one of Preston's third basemen. "In Bristol, we only had Channel 61, and that was Fox."

The South Caroline team, which will be called "Mid-Atlantic" during the World Series, is the sixth straight Eastern Shore team to win the state championship, but it's the first Maryland team to reach the World Series since the Brunswick team got here in 1986.

No Maryland team has ever won the Little League World Series, but if the South Caroline team plays like it did in the regional tournament, it could be the first.

The South Caroline team split its first four games in Bristol to draw the third seed in the semifinals, where it shut out a team from Washington, 1-0. In Sunday's final, Robbie Payne, the manager's son, hit two home runs and pitched a complete game five-hitter, striking out six, as South Caroline beat a team from Hilltown, Pa., 4-1.

In the regional, Robbie Payne and DaVonta DeShields (no relation to former Oriole Delino DeShields), alternated between the mound and center field, and didn't allow an earned run in the six games. DaVonta struck out 35 in his three starts.

"The little hitters have been getting on base for the big hitters, and the big hitters have been driving them in and doing their job," said Tyler Garvey, 11, a Preston third baseman.

The boys and their three coaches - all volunteers - have been away from home for most of the past month. They spent a week at the end of July in Williamsport in Frederick County for the state tournament, went home for five days, then went to Bristol for the regional tournament, which lasted 10 days.

They came straight here from Connecticut to practice and get fitted for new helmets and uniforms, then play three games in their four-team pool. If they place either first or second, their stay would be extended to the middle of next week, with the U.S. title game coming next Saturday and the championship game against an international team coming a week from tomorrow.

"We haven't had too many issues, but it's a long road," said Curtis Payne, on leave from his job as a computer programmer for a transportation firm. "I know when everybody gets home, the bad part about it is, when they leave here, they're right in school. The summer's over, but I don't think anybody out here would trade the experience."

Indeed, if you're 11 years old and you're going to be away from home for two weeks, there are worse places to be than this borough of Williamsport, a city of 29,000, about an hour's drive north of Harrisburg, tucked between two ranges of the Bald Eagle mountains and situated on the west branch of the Susquehanna River.

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