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Soccer ambassadors take field

Huddled at midfield on an unusually cool evening for a Citrus County October, more than a dozen adult soccer players got back to the basics of their youth: shirts versus skins.

Splitting off into offense and defense, the defenders stripped off their T-shirts. Some revealed waistlines as uneven as their tan lines. All together, they looked more like sandlot players than ambassadors of the city of Inverness.

But ambassadors they are.

And today, all their jerseys will match.

The Citrus County adult soccer team has been months in the making, since city officials received word that a top amateur team from Inverness, Scotland, was looking forward to visiting its sister city during an exhibition tour in Florida.

A match was proposed, and Citrus County's troupe of adult soccer players became Inverness, Florida's official welcoming committee. The red carpet rolls out today at 1:30 p.m., when the two teams will compete on Athletic Field A at Whispering Pines Park. Admission is free.

On display will be not only a team, but a project.

Months have been spent practicing, collecting donations for uniforms, arranging for bleachers and concessions, and corresponding almost weekly with the Scots on the smallest of details.

Mackin and his players only hope those who have made their team possible won't be disappointed in the product.

"Our goal is to go out there and play a real competitive game with these guys," Citrus coach Joe Mackin said. "Whether we can do that, I'll tell you in the first five minutes of the game."

Going in, the locals knew they would be hard-pressed to keep up with a team of skilled amateurs from Scotland, a country in which soccer is king. A photo enclosed in a recent letter only confirmed their suspicions.

"Their thighs are about as big around as most of our bodies," said Mike Rady, the current Citrus High School soccer coach and a player for the Hurricanes in the mid-1980s. "And they all have the same cleats _ that's always a good indicator."

The bunch from Inverness, Florida, will not wear matching cleats. But Mackin thinks they will impress spectators _ and the Scots _ with a surprising amount of talent.

"I figured I'd be lucky if I could get 18," Mackin said of his expectations when he first volunteered to coach the local team. "We had 46 to start out with, and now we're down to about 27 or 28.

"I was surprised at the talent in this age group that hasn't played in a while," Mackin said. "Overall they're an excellent team. It's just a matter of getting them to work together. They're real serious about it. Everybody wants to beat everybody out for starting positions."

Leading the way will be Phil Hennebry, a native of Ireland whose shots come off his foot like bullets. Hennebry, who has spent the last seven years in the United States, played for the Irish National team at age 15, traveling to Spain and Portugal for matches.

Walking through Whispering Pines Park one night, Hennebry stumbled onto a team practice, and joined in wearing his sneakers.

"At first, everybody said, "I hope they're not all as good as you,'

" said Hennebry, whose brogue is nearly undetectable after seven years away from Ireland, which is separated from Scotland by only a few miles of water. "But I said, "Why are you going to play? They have two legs and a head just like we do.'

"

The Citrus County team features players from ages 18 to 37 with varying degrees of experience and talent. Many have played college soccer, others have not played since high school. Some are coaches. Some are former coaches.

All will play against the Scots.

"Everybody will play at least a minute or two," Mackin said.

The team strategy is to hope for heat.

"This cool weather isn't helping us much," Mackin said. "We think we're going to be a little more used to the heat than they are. They're going to want to slow it down and control the ball. We're hoping it's hot and we can run them to death.

"But we're looking for a fun game."

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