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Little League stars set to shine

In the midst of a holiday honoring the United States' independence, one of the true-blue rituals of American culture gets under way this week _ Little League all-star tournaments.

Boys and girls ages 9-15 will participate in baseball and softball tournaments throughout the nation, including children from Citrus County's two Little League programs, Inverness and Crystal River.

Winners advance. Losers wait until next year.

"It's a do-or-die thing," said Mike Reynolds, manager of the Inverness Senior softball team. "It's exciting to be in that kind of a competition. It's fun to go on. If you're a Little League coach or player, this is the best of it."

Action starts Monday night and continues for the next two weeks. Games start at 7 p.m. nightly. Admission is free and concessions are available.

All-star teams differ from the Little League regular-season teams in that they bring together the most talented players from all of a league's teams. Players are selected by coaches. Managers of regular-season champions coach all-star teams.

But not only is the level of play higher, the stakes are higher. When play begins Monday, every team in America will strive to reach a Little League World Series.

It all starts, however, at the local level.

Inverness and Crystal River both belong to Florida's District 15, along with teams from 10 other west-central programs. District 15 is divided into north and south divisions, with Inverness and Crystal River in the south.

North and south division winners meet to determine District 15 champions.

District winners advance to four-team section tournaments; section winners advance to the four-team state tournament; state champions advance to regional tournaments; regional winners advance to the Little League World Series.

World Series events are held at different locations throughout the country, with the most popular being the Majors baseball series held each year in Williamsport, Pa.

Baseball competition is held in four age divisions: 9-10, Major League (11-12), Junior League (13) and Senior League (14-15). Softball tournaments are held in three age divisions: 9-10, Major League (11-12) and Senior League (13-15).

Three Citrus County teams won Top Teams titles recently, a competition that is similar to all-stars in format. In Top Teams, regular-season league champions, with the rosters intact, represent their programs against champions from other programs in double-elimination tournaments.

Local Top Teams champions included the Inverness Senior baseball team, Inverness Senior softball team and Crystal River Junior baseball team. But managers know a Top Teams title is no guarantee in all-star play.

"We're not overconfident," said Reynolds, whose Inverness Senior girls team _ Checkers _ was unbeaten during the regular season and swept the Top Teams tournament to end the year with a 21-0 record.

"A lot of people say, "Gosh, you've got a team,'

" Reynolds said. "But I've been doing this a long time and I know anything can happen, especially with teenage girls. But I'm hoping this is a unique group."

So is every other team in the country.

Play ball!