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Play ball! Little Leaguers hope to make history

Montana had never had a team in the Little League World Series. So, a couple weeks ago, 12-year-old Andy Maehl asked his Billings coach if their team was ready to make history.

"He kept asking me the question every five minutes," coach Mark Kieckbusch said Wednesday in recalling the talk with the catcher at the regional tournament. "I thought, 'What are you, crazy?'"

Prophetic? Yes.

Crazy? Not so much.

The mashers from Montana have made it all the way to South Williamsport, joining 15 other teams hoping to make the triumphant trot around the Lamade Stadium warning track with a World Series championship banner.

First pitch is Thursday, with Taiwan and Mexico leading off a four-game slate.

"Just to think, in 65 years," Maehl said Wednesday after batting practice, "we're the only team from Montana to do that."

Kieckbusch watched nearby, his shirt soaked in sweat after an hour watching swings in the cage.

"To go down as the first Montana team ever," Maehl said, "that's really cool."

The 65th World Series is peppered with other intriguing story lines, like the hometown favorites from Clinton County, Pa., who stormed through the Mid-Atlantic region to claim the final berth in the series on Monday. The Keystone Little League boys went straight from the regional final in Bristol, Conn., to the Little League complex, even though their homes are just about 30 miles southwest in rural central Pennsylvania.

So, it comes as no surprise to expect a big crowd Friday when Pennsylvania plays LaGrange, Ky., under the lights at Lamade Stadium.

"This is really exciting because I've been wanting to get here my whole life and play on this field," Pennsylvania outfielder Mike Keibler, 12, said. "I've watched the kids that were on there and it looked like a really cool field."

But the pressure isn't affecting Keibler or the rest of his teammates. These are mainly 11- and 12-year-olds, after all.

"The best thing about the dorms is the games," he said. "There are video games, there's ping pong, and my favorite — air hockey."

The World Series format was tweaked slightly this year, with an extra day tacked on to make it an 11-day marathon to championship Sunday on Aug. 28. The change will help give teams added time to develop a pitching strategy as a result of Little League's strict pitch count rules.

Also, the eight-team U.S. and international brackets are no longer each divided into two four-team divisions. Double-elimination rules remain until the tournament's final weekend.

Wednesday, though, was all about getting the last few swings in the batting cage. The fields were abuzz with activity on a picture-perfect summer afternoon as the familiar "ping" of metal bats resonated.

On the Mexico team, shortstop-pitcher Carlos Arellano seemed far from home on his 13th birthday. Keep in mind, while most participants are pre-teens, 13-year-olds are eligible so long as they were 12 on April 30.

The team had a chocolate birthday cake for Arellano and teammate Ulises Rodriguez, who turns 13 on Thursday.

Arellano's favorite player? His father, who goes by the same name. He played in the minors. But the younger Arellano wants just one gift this year ... and it's not from his father.

"Win the first game tomorrow," he said.

A team from Tokyo won the 2010 title, snapping a five-year winning streak for U.S. teams. Japan this year is represented by Hamamatsu City, which along with Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Montana are among 11 squads this year from local leagues making their inaugural appearances.

On the other end is Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a World Series regular with 12 straight appearances — though this year's trip came by virtue of a disqualification. A team from Uganda had initially won the Middle East & Africa region, but was denied visas by U.S. consular officers after the State Department said there were inconsistencies with players' ages and birth dates.

The Saudi Arabia team, comprised primarily of children of U.S. citizens working overseas, was tabbed after losing the regional final. Uganda was trying to become the first team from Africa to advance to the World Series.

Saudi Arabia players were already in the United States anyway on a planned summer break after training at a baseball camp in Florida.

"From the minute we joined, we had a good team," first baseman Jordan Hajazin, 11, said. "Unfortunately we lost, but we later on found out that they were overage, and we deserved to be here."