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Citrus Park Little Leaguers hope to take it all

Wyatt Reid's fifth-inning home run last week at Gulfport's Arnold S. White Sr. Stadium was a fitting finale for a ballpark that for more than 40 years was home to a Little League regional tournament. But as Reid's blast ended an era at Gulfport, it also completed a three-year dream for him and his teammates. This Citrus Park team, which opens play Friday at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., made a dominating run through the district, state and regional tournaments. Now, the team's eyes are firmly set on an even bigger prize.

The road to Williamsport

Two seasons ago, the seeds for Citrus Park's World Series run were planted when a group of 9- and 10-year-olds won a regional title at the Tournament of States. A year later in the 10-11 age group, Citrus Park won all 14 of its playoff games and captured a state championship.

Six ballplayers on this season's World Series-qualifier have suited up for all three teams.

"We kind of knew we were going to be pretty good," Citrus Park pitcher Michael McGuire said. "I knew we had the talent to go far. I just didn't know if we were going to show up."

In winning 17 straight playoff games, Citrus Park outscored its opponents 172 to 30. The team has been tested only twice, once in the state semifinal against Coral Springs and again at the Gulfport regional vs. defending Little League champion Warner Robins (Georgia). Both nail-biters ended in 3-2 victories.

Citrus Park blew out its opponents in the finals of the state and regional tournaments.

"When the bigger games come around, we seem to play better," McGuire said.

Not-so-secret weapon

Most Little League teams have one or two standout pitchers they can rely on, maybe three if they're lucky.

Citrus Park has six.

"Actually, every kid (on the team) can pitch," said Citrus Park manager Joe McGuire, whose son, Michael, is considered the team's top starter.

The unending supply of quality arms, perhaps more than any other factor, helped punch Citrus Park's ticket to Williamsport.

"If one of our pitchers goes down, someone's right there to pick him up." Michael McGuire said.

The younger McGuire speaks from firsthand experience.

In Citrus Park's regional championship victory last Friday over Alabama, a team that had scored 10 runs or more in eight of 11 playoff games, McGuire was scheduled to pitch the whole game, or at least until he reached his 85-pitch limit.

That plan was scrapped after he felt something pop on a throw to first for the final out of the second inning.

"As I was getting ready to release the ball, a shock of pain went through my forearm," he said.

Enter Wyatt Reid. The kid his teammates call "Vegas," because he's always money, took the mound on short notice in the third and mowed down one Alabama batter after another.

Reid's four innings put an exclamation point on a tournament pitching performance that saw five Citrus Park hurlers allow just four runs in five games.

"From Little League to the big leagues," Citrus Park pitching coach Lance McCullers said, "good pitching beats good hitting."

McCullers should know. He pitched in the major leagues for the Padres, Yankees, Rangers and Tigers.

Defense wins crowns

In the third, second baseman Austin McCullers ranged far to his right to reach the ball bouncing for the outfield.

In one fluid motion, McCullers made a bare-handed stab, stepped on second, leaped into the air and fired to first, completing a double play that ended an Alabama scoring threat, with Citrus Park leading 1-0.

ESPN announcer Brian Jordan deemed the sequence worthy of a "Web gem" during the championship game telecast. Yet, plays like McCullers' have become the norm for a Citrus Park defense that rarely gives up cheap runs.

"That was a good play, but we make a lot of good plays," Austin McCullers said.

An inning later, shortstop Kevin Merrell turned nearly the same double play to squelch Alabama's final scoring opportunity.

"I know if (the opponent) hits a ground ball, if it's catchable, my defense is going to catch it." Mike McGuire said.

Overnight celebrities

The day after Citrus Park's championship win over Alabama, Michael McGuire stood outside the Publix at Ehrlich and Turner roads with the rest of his teammates.

The team wasn't seeking groceries, but money to help pay their way to Williamsport.

In the three days before its Tuesday departure, the team collected donations at hat drops throughout the community.

Saturday's was at Publix for five hours. Sunday started at Dick's Sporting Goods at Westfield Citrus Park mall and morphed into three other hat drops at Publix stores throughout the day.

"People are saying, 'We watched you on TV,' " Michael McGuire said. "It kind of feels good. Like we're superstars."

The hat drops netted the team a couple of thousand dollars.

"I went to a restaurant the other day and about six or seven people came up to me and congratulated us." Austin McCullers said. "It's been really cool."

Joe McGuire estimates that the Williamsport experience will cost the team nearly $60,000, or $5,000 for each of the 12 families involved.

"We're hoping to collect about $30,000 of that through donations," he said.

The final chapter

Three teams from Tampa's Belmont Heights (1975, 1980, 1981) and a squad from St. Petersburg (1948) have made it as far as the Little League championship game, but none has been able to close the deal.

Citrus Park will attempt to become the first Tampa Bay area team to win it all. Yet these are youngsters who are happy just to practice.

"It's really cool to still be playing," Austin McCullers said.

>>Fast Facts

Little League
World Series

When/Where: Today-Aug. 24, Williamsport, Pa.

Format: Eight regional championship teams from the United States are separated into two pools of four teams. Each team plays three pool games, and the top two finishers from each pool advance to the U.S. semifinal. Simultaneously, a group of eight international teams play a tournament with the same format as the U.S. tournament. The champions from the United States and International tournaments meet Aug. 24 for the overall championship.

Citrus Park's pool play schedule: Today vs. Midwest regional champ Canyon Lake L.L. (Rapid City, S.D.), 2 p.m.; Sunday vs. West regional champ Waipio L.L. (Waipahu, Hawaii), 8 p.m.; Monday vs. New England regional champ Shelton National L.L. (Connecticut), 6 p.m. All games are televised by ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

Citrus Park Little Leaguers hope to take it all 08/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 14, 2008 2:26pm]
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