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  Fri, August 20, 2004


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NFL CANADA




'The little team that could'
The East Nepean Eagles, Chris Stevenson says, are pursuing a world title on a field of dreams
By CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

WILLIAMSPORT, PA. -- Alexandra Bellini sat on the lush green hill above Howard J. Lamade Stadium yesterday afternoon and looked down on the mecca of Little League baseball, the soft, hazy hills of western Pennsylvania rolling away as a backdrop in the distance.

The immaculate 6,500-seat stadium, the home of the Little League World Series, the vivid green grass of the field and the terraces beyond the outfield fence ... it made for a breathtaking moment yesterday despite overcast skies.

"I can't believe we are going to play there (this) afternoon," said the East Nepean Eagles third baseman. "That is so cool. This is the biggest tournament ... to be able to play in this huge event in front of quite a few people, representing Canada. It's unbelievable."

The Eagles, the first Ottawa team to represent Canada in this pinnacle of Little League baseball, have been saying that a lot since they got here a couple of days ago.

They play their first game of the tournament this afternoon (5 p.m., ESPN2) at Lamade against Panama City, the Latin Zone champ.

Their second game is Monday against Taiwan, the Asian representative (8 p.m.) and their final game of the round robin is Tuesday against Poland at 1 p.m. (ESPN2).

The International and United States semi-finals go Wednesday and Thursday, followed by the finals in each division next Saturday.

The world championship between the International and United States winners goes a week from Sunday.

ATHLETES VILLAGE

The Eagles are staying in International Grove, a complex of buildings that amounts to their own athletes village, steps away from Lamade Stadium, one of two stadiums in the Little League complex (the other is Little League Volunteer Stadium). When they look out their front window and walk out the front door, the stunning sight of the stadiums set further down the hill greets them.

They have been showered with gifts: Two sets of catcher's gear, their own batting helmets, batting gloves -- even bats -- and best of all, their Team Canada uniforms.

"We had tears in our eyes seeing the kids in those uniforms," said Mike O'Byrne, one the Eagles' coaches. "We're just so unbelievably proud of them. This is the little team that could."

O'Byrne, the CJOH newsman, whose nephew, Jesse, is on the club, and head coach Mike Crepin have been enjoying this as much as the kids.

"This is like being 12 again," said O'Byrne. "There's a root beer float party tonight and I can't wait to get there. I can't remember the last time I had a root beer."

The Eagles had their final workout yesterday afternoon before getting down to business today. O'Byrne said the team has had three "subpar" practices here, and there were more distractions yesterday when there were a few tense moments following a rumoured bomb threat, which turned out to be nothing.

MISSED DIVE

Crepin, meanwhile, spent the day at a local hospital after left fielder Shane Harper-Thompson completed only 51/2 of his ambitious six-twist dive and scraped his tummy on the diving board (turns out it looks worse that it is and he'll be fine).

Bellini was in demand again, doing an interview with a Toronto newspaper over a cellphone. She's one of only two girls playing in the tournament this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of the first girl playing in the Little League World Series.

O'Byrne put the kids through their final workout on a diamond a few hundred yards down the hill, hitting grounders in a light drizzle and giving the kids their choice of drills. There was plenty of chatter with the kids complimenting each other on their throws, punctuated by the metallic hollow ring of the bat with each grounder O'Byrne tapped out.

"These are the last ground balls you'll take before the game at Lamade," chirped O'Byrne.

"The sharpness begins now," said one of the kids.

"Yeah," said O'Byrne, "the sharpness begins now."

Alex "Stinky" Baldock, who along with Jesse O'Byrne and big catcher/pitcher Matthew DeLuca make up the Eagles' "Three Amigos" leadership core, said the club will be ready today.

"I'm excited and nervous at the same time," said Baldock, who tested a bit of a sore arm yesterday and pronounced himself ready to pitch today. "The first time I saw that field, it was just amazing. I've never seen anything like that ... and wearing the Canada jersey, I'm still trying to let that sink in.

"We'll take it easy (this morning). We've been thinking about this game the whole time here. It's not hard to be focused."