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'It's bigger than life:' Little League World Series opens today

August 16, 2008

View the Opening Day slideshow

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) -- His shirt tinged with sweat, Rapid City manager Doug Simons trudged up a hill behind his giddy players sporting a big smile after morning practice.

It was hard to tell who was more excited to be at the Little League World Series.

"It's bigger than life," the South Dakota coach said Thursday as he filed past the gates to Volunteer Stadium. "I've watched it for years, but it's even more spectacular than I even thought."

Wait until Simons takes in the view from the field: The 2008 series begins Friday as the South Dakotans open the tournament with an afternoon game against Tampa, Fla.

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Win the title and they're bound to be treated like heroes back home. South Dakota, Florida and six other squads are vying to extend the U.S. championship streak. The three straight victories by American teams is the longest streak since an eight-game run between 1959-1966.

Thursday is all about getting ready for the 10-day marathon -- from the groundskeepers busily putting the finishing touches on the groomed fields to players taking some cuts in the covered batting cages. Parents mill around with cameras and plastic bags full of souvenirs.

"Thursday is probably the most hectic day of them all," Little League Baseball president Stephen Keener said during a brief respite between appointments. "The last day before all the excitement."

The South Dakotans are apparently already energized since the Canyon Lake Little League team from Rapid City is the first squad from the state to advance to South Williamsport. Their trek through state and regional tournaments and now to the World Series has kept them on the road for three weeks.

"But my dad, he's left me a lot of messages saying it's just crazy there," outfielder Alec Winter said during a break at the batting cages.

There are a couple other notable firsts this year, including the first team from Italy comprised mainly of native Italians. The only other time a team from Italy advanced was when a squad of children of U.S. military personnel at Aviano Air Base advanced to South Williamsport.

This year's team, from Emilia, Italy, also includes the first female coach in Little League World Series history. However, Barbara Zuelli said she doesn't actually coach the players, but serves as the team's official scorekeeper.

"When they're playing, I never teach them," she said as she watched batting practice from a golf cart.

She is a big baseball fan and proud mom, though. Her son, Giovanni, catches and plays third base for the Italians.

Otherwise, having females take part in the World Series isn't that unusual. There have been female umpires and several girls have played on teams mainly comprised of 11, 12 and 13 year-old boys.

Guam's Brielle Meno will be the first girl to play in the World Series since 2004.

"It was nice," Meno said when asked about her first impressions of the main Little League facility, Lamade Stadium. "It looked bigger than I thought."

Also debuting this year is an experimental instant replay system that will be used to review close home run calls and other questionable plays at the outfield fence. Little League beat Major League Baseball to the punch on that front.

Among the international teams, the mainstays from the Pabao Little League in Curacao are back for a sixth straight year. Japan, Mexico and Venezuela also usually field standout squads from the eight-team international bracket.

Curacao was the last international team to win the Little League World Series, in 2004. Baby-faced 12-year-old Juremi Profar is a grizzled veteran after having played for Curacao last season.

He has a simple mantra for his team to break the U.S. stranglehold on the title: "Just play good and we will the championship again."

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