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Soccer team gets taste of America

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

When Brian Shriver Sr. advertised on the World Wide Web for teams to participate in the sixth annual Dunedin Stirling Shootout, he was looking for some out-of-state competitors.

So, he was happy to receive a message that a team from Georgia wanted to play. Then, he figured out just how out-of-state the team was.

"I looked at the phone number and realized it was out of the country, too," said Shriver, the tournament director.

Today, a group of 11-year-old boys from the Republic of Georgia's Tbilisi team will be among 103 teams in the youth soccer tournament. Most teams come from the Tampa Bay area, but there are some from as far as Texas and the Cayman Islands. This is the second year the tournament has had international competitors.

The Tbilisi team of 12 arrived Saturday and will stay through Tuesday. When they're not practicing their techniques at Jerry Lake Park, the boys are enjoying swimming, video games, Busch Gardens and hockey games.

Six Dunedin families, including Shriver's, are each hosting two boys from the Georgian team.

Leah Steele and her husband, Dr. Paul Steele, have Alex, a left defenseman, and Irakli, the goalie, staying with them and their four children.

"This is a really special group of children," Leah Steele said.

Irakli said through a translator that his team will win the tournament, but he thinks the home team, the Dunedin Stirling Celtics, will play well. The three-day shootout is held in Dunedin, Largo, Clearwater and Oldsmar.

Evan Steele, 12, likes playing soccer with the Georgian boys.

"It's a whole different (playing) style," he said. "They pass more than we do and they are more physical."

Brian Shriver Jr. said Bacho and Maklazi, the two boys staying with his family, won't stop eating caramel popcorn and playing video games.

"They are really nice," he said. Brian can't talk to his Georgian guests, who don't speak English, so the kids communicate through hand gestures. When he wanted to ask the boys whether they wanted to see a Lightning hockey game, he motioned with an imaginary hockey stick.

Bacho said he liked his trip to Busch Gardens the most, especially the Congo River Rapids ride, but he was scared to go on the roller coasters.

Maklazi, also a defenseman, said he likes playing against the Dunedin Stirling Celtics.

"I didn't think they would compete as hard as they do," he said.

The Georgian coach, Malkhaez, said that he brought the team to Florida so the kids could play soccer in warmer weather. The Georgians brought a soccer team to New York in 1992, and several of those players are now playing on the Republic of Georgia's national team. Malkhaez said he hopes several of the players who came for this weekend's tournament will play soccer nationally as well. "Soccer is their favorite sport," he said.

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