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THE EXPERIENCE HELPS OFFSET LOSSES

For six teams at the Little League Southeast Regional, it's back home to chores, the last days of summer vacation and worst of all, school.

This is a bittersweet time for players: they'll leave behind friends from states they've never visited, but will do so with a bat bag full of memories.

After three years covering the tournament, I'm reminded of a favorite quote. After four straight defeats - some of them quite ugly - last year, I asked West Virginia manager Pat Oliveri what he told his kids after the games.

"I just told them the sun will still come up tomorrow," he said. "And the Dairy Queen will always be open."

Does it get more refreshingly unfiltered than that? Subtle and simple, it summed up a lot of what this tournament means: Seven of the eight teams will not advance to Little League's promised land in Williamsport, Pa.

North Carolina's Andrew Toney is one of those who will watch the World Series on television.

Toney, all 5-foot-11, 200 pounds of him, dazzled Virginia for five no-hit innings Sunday. It unraveled quickly and painfully: a swinging bunt here, an error there and North Carolina's two-run, sixth-inning lead was no more. One Virginia player said "luck" played a major role in his team finally getting to Toney.

North Carolina manager Chris Garrison finally ambled out to relieve Toney. Garrison took the ball from a kid he virtually looks eye-to-eye with and hugged him. Head on Garrison's shoulder, Toney wept.

Then came a moment. It didn't make Toney's situation any easier at the time, but it will stick around far longer than a fleeting tear. As Toney made the slow, somber walk out to leftfield, tugging his cap down to hide the tears, the Virginia fans rose to their feet.

And they cheered - loudly - in recognition and appreciation of Toney's effort, enthusiasm and talent. The gesture was classy, respectful and a joy to witness.

When this and the next tournament are done, there will be one world champion. Thirteen lucky kids.

Andrew Toney will be watching the World Series on TV - just like the other 2.7-million Little Leaguers in more than 90 countries from around the globe - and relaying stories to his friends about his summer trip to Gulfport. By then, those long-forgotten tears will be replaced with a smile.

Because ultimately, the sun will still come up tomorrow and the Dairy Queen will always be open.

Brandon Wright can be reached at bwright@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2216.

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