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Long road starts in districts

The fields are as well manicured as a major-league park and the crowds rival what the Devil Rays draw on most days. It's the dream of every Little League player to make it to Williamsport, Pa.

The road is a long one, and not just because it's about a 1,300-mile drive.

It starts Saturday, when the Little League All-Star baseball and softball district tournaments start.

While it may be a longshot, manager Seton McNulty will try to guide Citrus Park to a title. He has carried Citrus Park to back-to-back city championships by winning the past two Lorenzo "Tapi" Rodriguez tournaments in the Major (11- and 12-year-old) baseball division. It is that age group that will crown a championship on the field in Williamsport.

The immediate goal for McNulty and Citrus Park is to get through the other District 6 contenders, such as Tampa Bay, which lost to Citrus Park in the Tapi tournament final the past two seasons.

Palma Ceia won its first Junior baseball title this season at the Tapi tournament. Manager Joe Hafner steered the White Sox on an undefeated run through the tournament. In six games, Palma Ceia outscored its opponents 55-20.

"We had a winning regular season and we carried that into the Palma Ceia tournament, where our bats got hot at the right time," Hafner said. "And it continued into the Tapi tournament. With our offensive power, the closest game was 6-3 against Tampa Bay in the championship. The rest of the games we easily won."

The team, led by Peter Kirkwood, Kevin Krebs and Patrick Hafner, hit the ball hard but also excelled at making contact. In a three-game stretch, the team had just one strikeout.

"I don't remember us hitting any home runs," coach Hafner said. "Just a lot of solid base hits."

The trio will be joined by Michael Lashbrook and Shane Scanlon to form the nucleus of a team that has a good chance to advance to sectionals. Of the 14 players on Hafner's All-Star team, 12 are playing in American Legion, nine with Plant.

"And three others are playing legion with either Jesuit, Robinson or Tampa Prep," Hafner said. "They've played another 20 games since the end of May. So we should have a veteran group and a strong team."

Hosting half the bracket won't hurt Palma Ceia's chances either.

"It's the first tournament, so we could go two-and-out or play five or six games to get through," Hafner said. "We'll have to see how the competition is. Once we're playing, we have to start by winning some games and stay in the winner's bracket as long as we can."

While advancing to the world championship seems farfetched, it actually has been done by a team from Tampa. And just last season.

The Tampa Bay Junior softball team won its first 15 games to make it through the district, sectional, state and regional tournaments. The team was 4-0 in World Series pool play to earn the top seed and beat the host team (Kirkland, Wash.) in the semifinals before losing to the Netherlands 5-3 in the final.

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