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Champs score again at home

(ran PS edition of PASCO TIMES)

The Dixie Belles are a hit at their homecoming after taking the World Series title in softball competition in Georgia.

Even as cheering parents and friends gave the Hernando County Dixie Belles a grand homecoming Friday afternoon, you could see why the 10 girls wanted to get down off the platform at Tom Varn Park as soon as possible after they were recognized as World Series champions.

It wasn't the booming thunder in the background or the threat of rain any minute. But with a trophy the size of the one these girls were carrying around, you've got to worry about lightning.

Lightning didn't strike Friday, but the Belles certainly did Thursday night, beating Alabama's state champions twice _ by one run each time _ to win the Dixie Belles World Series in Evans, Ga., and bring the title home to Brooksville.

"This is awesome _ I love it," said pitcher Emily Eicholtz, holding her own trophy after the celebration. "This is the best."

Three of the 13 Belles didn't travel back with their teammates, but those who did were treated like royalty. It started with a police escort from Interstate 75 back through town, with horns honking and sirens blaring as the team approached Tom Varn Park in the flatbed of a black Ford truck.

Belles manager Darin Dampier introduced each of the players, briefly offering what each did to help earn the championship, from Jessica Maggard pitching all seven innings in the final game to outfielder Caitlin Sears backing up first base and throwing out a runner trying to advance on an error in the Belles' first game Thursday.

"If she hadn't backed up first base and made that throw, we wouldn't have won that game," Dampier said.

Four of the Belles' five wins in the tournament were by the slimmest of margins. On Sunday, they gave up five runs in the last inning and were facing the tying run on third base before defeating Georgia 17-16, and on Wednesday, they needed an extra inning to edge Tennessee. On Thursday night, the Belles beat Alabama 7-6 and 5-4. In the final inning of the championship game, Alabama had the tying run at second base with no outs and at third base when the final out sealed Hernando County's victory.

"(First baseman) Whitney (Griffin) said she had her eyes closed when she made that last out, but I don't think so, because she caught the ball," Dampier said.

The team, made up of girls ages 13-15, drove up to the Augusta, Ga., suburb in five vans July 30, and after six games in six days, they drove home as champions, not minding the eight-hour ride as much as they had on the way there.

"I think we had the loudest stands the entire week," Dampier said. "We had almost all the parents up there (Thursday) night. We had some that actually flew up for the last game, and others drove in and drove back. It's been unbelievable."

At Friday's homecoming, the players were introduced by Hernando softball coach Ernie Chatman, who noted that all three county high schools had players on the Belles' championship roster.

"When you go to different schools, you don't talk to each other a lot," pitcher Eicholtz said. "Then, when you get all together, it doesn't matter what school you go to. You're all together."

The biggest cheers during the celebration came as everyone listened to a rebroadcast of the radio call of the final out and the championship pileup that ensued. Even without the radio, the experience looks to be something all the players will remember for a long time.

"This is something these girls will never forget," Dampier said. "They can tell their kids and their grandkids about this. They'll see each other 20 years from now and hug each other and say, "Hey, we played in the World Series together.' "

Belles roster

Players: Carrie Bruzzi, Shauna Dampier, Emily Eicholtz, Carolyn Gant, Lindsay Grey, Whitney Griffin, Heather Krasniewski, Kristi Langworthy, Jessica Maggard, Jenn Reyes, Caitlin Sears, Tonya Stevenson, Nicole Young

Manager: Darin Dampier

Coaches: Paul Grey, Sam Hill

+ + +

An emotional Carolyn Gant, 14, second from left, shows her trophy to her mother, Pam Gant, as her teammates crowd around in Brooksville. Pam Gant was unable to attend the World Series competition in Evans, Ga., and her daughter was eager to get home and show her the prize. Carolyn's sister, Melissa, played on a team that finished third in the competition in 1997.

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