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Batters up! // Little Leaguers are taking over

The Echols sisters looked stunned. South Carolina was losing to Tennessee, and it wasn't supposed to happen that way.

Seated together in the stands and sporting red team T-shirts, the eight sisters stared out at the field. South Carolina was at bat. Its hitters still weren't connecting, fooled by the sidearm-slung curveball of Tennessee pitcher Ryan MacIntyre.

South Carolina trailed 7-1 by the top of the ninth inning. "Be ready, baby. Be ready, baby," a man seated over the team dugout implored a batter. "It's your ball. It's your ball."

When the 1996 Little League baseball season started, it was the dream of 157,000 boys and girls from 13 Southern states to play well enough to be invited to this field off 58th Street S.

It is here in this city of a little more than 12,000 residents that the Little League Baseball Southern Regional Tournament has decided its championship each year since 1964.

"It goes without saying that it is the most prestigious event we have," said Gulfport Mayor Michael Yakes. He postponed a trip to a Florida League of Cities meeting in Boca Raton to throw out the opening ball of the tournament. "We are very fortunate to have the Southern Regional headquarters in our city."

The 182 youngsters (11 and 12 years old) competing in this week's tournament stay in a long, two-story dormitory at the Southern Regional Little League Headquarters, 658 58th St. S.

Families of the players and other well-wishers take up rooms at area motels and hotels. Back home in Charleston, the eight Echols sisters run the concession stand for the Little League games. When their boys won the state championship, the eight sisters joined a convoy of three vans and two cars that carried the L'eggs Little League and 20 members of the Echols family to the tournament.

"We got a real good team. I don't know what happened. They weren't hitting the ball," said team mother Jessie Harley. South Carolina lost 7-2. Harley predicted a comeback from the losers' bracket.

"They are too good," she said.

Since their championships are held in Florida, families here to cheer the teams planned to work in a Florida vacation with sightseeing and visits to the beach and area theme parks. For the 12 teams that lose, defeat might be sweetened by Walt Disney World or the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Citrus County.

"They came for one thing. That's the baseball championship," said South Carolina coach Eugene Thomas. "Everything else is gravy."

The winner of the Southern Regional goes on to play in the 50th anniversary Little League World Series, in Williamsport, Pa., Aug. 19-24.

"If we get out early enough, we will go to Disney World," said Randy Potter, while covering the ears of son Daniel, 8. "If we keep winning, we will go straight to Pennsylvania."

Potter, his wife, Donna, and Daniel timed their summer vacation to coincide with the games. The family was staying with a group of about 30 fans from Tennessee in Treasure Island motels. Jeremy Potter, 12, hit two home runs Thursday for Tennessee.

While the Gulfport Lions Little League has never sent a team to the Southern Regional Tournament, the games are eagerly followed by Little League enthusiasts here, said Gulfport Lions president Diane Penney. About 400 children from the city participate in Little League baseball and softball this year, Penney said. Watching the championship games gives the children a boost.

"It is very inspiring," she said. "It gives our kids enthusiasm to try to make it to that level."

The Southern Regional Headquarters in Gulfport was the first regional office established by Little League Baseball, said Lance Van Auken, media relations director. The same parents who established the Gulfport Lions Little League as a separate organization offered the playing field when Little League Baseball decided to establish regional offices in the early 1960s, he said.

Volunteers built the stadium seating and the baseball diamond, said former Gulfport Lions volunteer Jack Pollard, 81. The leader of Little League baseball in Gulfport was Arnold S. White Sr., who would became the first director of the regional office. Today, the stadium is named after its first director, who died in 1993.

"We were the ones that got that thing started there," Pollard said in an interview from his Crystal River home. "Arnold was the cog in the whole wheel. I was mostly moralsupport. He was a guy who would get behind something, push it through to the end and make it happen."

In a 1991 interview with the Times, White said his enthusiasm for baseball grew out of his belief that it helps children to mature into responsible adults.

"Little League teaches children the things they need to know about entering adulthood," he said. "It teaches them how to work with other people, how to respect authority in the form of the umpire and how to interact in the community."

For a team used to victory, those lessons had a bitter taste for the team from Charleston, S.C.

When asked why they had lost, team members didn't blame the humidity, which reached 91 percent Thursday. Nor did they blame the umpiring. Instead, they took it squarely on their young, skinny shoulders.

They got their signals crossed when two players called for a ball and then neither went for it. The catcher made a wild throw. The one thing the team could rely on failed them. "The bats weren't working," said Corey Bryant, 12. "They aren't cranked up today."