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    Chemistry leads team to triumph

    The Palm Harbor baseball team of 15- and 16-year-olds tossed aside their egos and frustrations, and won a world championship title.

    By JOHN SCHWARB

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 23, 2001


    KISSIMMEE -- Sally and Tom Massaro sat near the Osceola County Stadium turnstiles, in the shade and away from the commotion. Even a once-in-a-lifetime day at the ballpark required a few moments of rest immediately afterward.

    It was a great time to be "Nana and Pop."

    The grandparents of Palm Harbor second baseman Eddie Garton had flown from Cherry Hill, N.J., to central Florida just for the Senior League World Series. They weren't disappointed.

    "I'm just so excited I was here," Sally Massaro said. "It's just such a thrill."

    There was plenty of that sentiment to go around.

    Palm Harbor completed a remarkable journey Saturday with a win in the title game of the World Series, 7-4 over a team from Maracaibo, Venezuela. Even though it is a team of 15- and 16-year-olds, the title was years -- and six long weeks this summer -- in the making.

    * * *

    Many of the 14 Palm Harbor seniors grew up together, and played with and against each other in countless neighborhood games. As they got older, Little League competition became the heart of the summer.

    But going all the way proved difficult. Attempts to get to the Little League World Series that most fans know about, the 11-12 age division that plays its title games on television, fell short.

    Tyler Clippard and Ryan Harvey struggled together.

    "I've been playing baseball for, like, 11 years; and probably I've got seven district titles," said Clippard, who attends Mitchell High in Pasco County. "We never got out of sectionals until this year."

    Seven other Palm Harbor players were together on a team that made it to the Junior League World Series (for 13- to 14-year-olds) last year in Michigan, but the team lost to Canada twice and finished third.

    Coach John Petika, who led the junior team and this year's champions, said many teams that advance so far without winning it all fall hard; and dissension and anger rip apart players and coaches.

    But his group was different, and as seniors he felt they could win it all.

    "I told them at our first meeting on June 15, "Nine of you will be position players and five will have to sit,' " Petika said. " "If you can put aside all the petty jealousies and the selfishness, you've got a shot.'

    "They accepted their roles like men."

    * * *

    They sometimes traveled like boys. The team won the District 12 tournament (against North Pinellas and Pasco-based teams), then a sectional tournament, then it was time to hit the road.

    At the state tournament in DeLand, the team slept in a dormitory at Stetson University. At the Southern Region tournament in Toccoa, Ga., a barracks-type building served as sleeping quarters. Cooped up for days at a time, one can imagine the teenage unrest.

    "They'd just wake up and start running around," Petika said. "One kid wakes up at 2 a.m., they all wake up."

    Still, the boys managed to get up every morning and play championship baseball. Though the team faced adversity in DeLand and Toccoa -- losing one game early in the tournament and having to fight through a loser's bracket to reach the title game -- the experience made them tougher.

    "It hardened the team," Petika said. "I don't know if I ever believed in chemistry before this year; but when that team got on the field, the chemistry was great."

    And greatest when it was all over. Saturday night the players went home for the first time in a month knowing it would be for more than just a laundry stop.

    "At the beginning it was fun; but after a while, it gets tiring," leftfielder Brian DeGonzague said. "A bunch of us, we all wanted to go home."

    * * *

    Saturday morning, the Massaros dined with the team and sensed a calm.

    "They didn't seem tight at all," Tom Massaro said. "They seemed ready."

    Their fans certainly were. Michelle and Melissa Mennone, younger sisters of centerfielder Marcello Mennone, came dressed in shirts with the team photo and Marcello's No. 9 printed on the back.

    Sarah Carlson made her allegiances clear with a maroon shirt (to match the Little League-issued Palm Harbor uniforms) that read "#1 is my BOYFRIEND."

    "Eddie (Garton) calls me before the games. I have to wish him luck," Carlson said. "It's our little routine.

    Carlson and her Mitchell classmates also displayed support. Kristin McClanahan's T-shirt asked "Que tal hora Venezuela?," loosely translated to "What's up now, Venezuela?"

    Everyone was treated to a roller coaster of a game. Palm Harbor took an early 2-0 lead, then Venezuela tied it.

    Palm Harbor pushed two runs across in the fourth and fifth innings to go up 6-2, then Venezuela posted a serious threat in the sixth, scoring two and putting runners on second and third with no out.

    Then Harvey pulled out the feat of the season. After two-and-a-half hours under the sweltering sun, the pitcher appeared to be showing signs of fatigue. But he reached back for another gear and struck out three batters in a row to snuff out Venezuela's threat.

    Moments later, he blasted a home run in the seventh to put an exclamation point on the game and the summer for Palm Harbor.

    Thunder and lightning then moved in and delayed the game for 15 minutes in the bottom of the seventh when Venezuela was down to its last strike.

    But Palm Harbor returned to finish the job, and a mad celebration was moved beneath the stadium when inclement weather did what no opponent could do all year: Knock Palm Harbor off the field for good.

    * * *

    It was more than a little cramped beneath the grandstands, as the players received their certificates -- assistant coaches Pete Jimenez and Bobby Uzdavines proudly called them their diplomas -- and medals. Parents jockeyed for photo opportunities. Officials directed traffic and, after a while, politely asked everyone to get to their cars for safety.

    Nana and Pop took it all in from the turnstiles, happy to watch their grandson and his teammates from a distance.

    "I've watched all those kids since they were this big," Sally Massaro said as she held her hand 3 feet off the ground. "Now they're men."

    And champions.

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