Little League glory kept close to players' hearts

It was clear the ball didn't have enough to get past the infield, and the crowd, nearly 4,000 strong, began to cheer in disbelief. Many of them were already on their feet. Others rose to join them.

As third baseman D DeSantis scooped up the ball and threw to first, the players in the dugout edged onto the field, squeezing each other's arms.

First baseman David McElvain closed his glove; the ball disappeared, and the crowd erupted.

McElvain leapt. All the players leapt, in that ungainly way that kids jump around in excitement, skipping and falling and tackling each other as they ran toward the pitcher's mound.

On Aug. 15, 1991, Gulfport's Arnold S. White Stadium became the field of dreams for 14 boys from Dunedin National Little League. They were the last team from the Tampa Bay area to win the region and advance to the Little League World Series.

"It was the time of our lives," team member Jeremy Kurella, now 29, said. "We were little celebrities."

When they returned home the day after their final game at the Little League World Series, a few hundred people greeted them at the airport. They finished sixth in the world, and the city of Dunedin held a parade in their honor.

Years later, the players tucked away their mementos in dresser drawers. "It seems like such a long time ago," said team member Toby Evans, 29.

Players from the '91 team never lost their love for the game, but their own high expectations were tempered. Though some chose to concentrate on soccer or tennis in later years, many continued to play organized baseball.

No one from that team made it to the major leagues. These days the lineup includes a lawyer (DeSantis), a deputy sheriff (Kurella), and a high school baseball and softball coach (Evans) — to mention just a few of their fields of interest.

"A lot of us went off in different paths," Kurella said. "But many of us still keep in touch. When we get together, we still talk about our Little League experience. There are a lot of kids out there who would like to do what we did."

Two years ago, another Dunedin team almost did.

Dunedin Little League's 2006 team won the state tournament and played at the Southeast Regional. In the days leading up to the tournament, Kurella stopped by the team's practices to show off a scrapbook from his '91 team.

"There were lots of 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the kids," Kurella said.

The 2006 Dunedin team made it to the region final. Players from the '91 team made it a point to watch the game, even if they were not in attendance.

"It's different now, because they have ESPN televising the final," said Evans, who now lives in Atlanta. "I wish we had that back in '91. But it was still fun to watch that team play in Gulfport.

"It sure brought back a lot of memories."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com

>>FAST FACTS

Standout teams from the bay area

Here are some of the bay area Little League programs that have fared well at the Southeast Regional.

Belmont Heights: The program is still the standard bearer in the area. Between 1973-82, six Belmont Heights teams in three classifications made Little League World Series appearances in Williamsport, Pa. The major-league program got the most attention, finishing second in 1975, 1980, and 1981, and third in 1973.

Northside: The Tampa-based program won the regional in 1989 and advanced to the Little League World Series, losing to San Pedro, Calif., in the first round.

Pinellas Park National: In 1974, the team made the region final, where it lost to Texas. The game before, Pinellas Park lost its top player, Donnie Scott, to a broken ankle. Scott went on to play in the Reds organization and is now the minor-league manager at Drayton.

St. Petersburg: The program made it to Williamsport in 1948 in what was then called the national tournament. St. Petersburg lost to Lock Haven, Pa., 6-5.

Southeast Regional

When/where: Saturday to Aug. 8, Gulfport

Directions: Heading south on I-275: Take Fifth Avenue N exit, at the end of the ramp turn right (west). Follow Fifth Avenue to 58th Street and turn left (south). Follow 58th to Seventh Avenue S (the complex is on the left just past Royal Palms Cemetery).

Format: State champions (11- to 12-year-old major baseball teams) from Alabama, Florida (Citrus Park), Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia compete in pool play for three days, with the top four making the semifinals. The overall tournament champion, decided Aug. 8 in a game televised live on ESPN, moves on to the 16-team Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., Aug. 15-24.

Little League glory kept close to players' hearts 07/31/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 1:37pm]

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