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Youthfulness doesn't limit HeatWave

Most of the players are shorter than 4 feet, and none can throw the ball from deep centerfield to home plate on the fly. But they can still play softball.

The Tampa HeatWave under-8 fast-pitch softball travel team won the International Softball Association state championship July 8.

Most travel teams include highly skilled players looking for recognition by college coaches.

Some under-8 players, boys and girls, are hitting the ball off of a tee and learning to play the game.

Not the HeatWave, though. They are having fun playing ball and enjoy finding other teams in their age group wanting a game.

Sonny LeBlanc coaches the team, based in Citrus Park. Between basketball and softball in New England and fast-pitch softball in Tampa, LeBlanc has 25 years of coaching experience.

After arriving in Tampa in 1986, he coached fast-pitch softball for the Temple Terrace Little League.

By 1990, he had developed a winning travel team program, and his HeatWave team won the Amateur Softball Association Southern Regional Championship. He also coached the King High softball team from 1993-96.

In 1997, the 18-and-under HeatWave won the ISA World Series. He retired after 1997 but came back in the fall of 2000 to start all over with 8-year-olds.

"This is a totally new experience and the most fun I have ever had," he said. "It is so much fun to watch the enthusiasm and excitement these little kids show in learning and playing softball.

"We still have the same problem with the 8's we had with all travel ball in the late '80s and early '90s. It is hard to find competition."

The HeatWave placed fifth in a field of 18 teams in the National Softball Association State Tournament three weeks ago in Palm Beach Gardens.

At the ISA double-elimination state tournament, the team went 4-1. The HeatWave beat the Contenders 9-7, South Florida 16-1 and The Twilight Angels 13-2 in the first three rounds before losing 13-9 to the Lady Bandits in the semifinals.

It later came back to beat the Lady Bandits 7-6 in the final.

This weekend, the team is in Atlanta for the ISA World Tournament.

"Travel ball is very demanding on both parents and players," LeBlanc said. "You need everyone's help to field a team, get support from parents for practice and travel schedules, teach the sport and maintain dedication from all.

"I couldn't ask more from anyone on the HeatWave."