LI Little League softball team reaches Oregon

Pitcher Jenny Hickey (#9) warms up before competing

Pitcher Jenny Hickey (#9) warms up before competing in the skills competition, which includes trying to throw a softball through a tire target. (Aug. 8, 2012) (Credit: Sol Neelman)

After stepping off their plane in Portland, Ore., the girls on the New Hyde Park softball team received a surprise: two chauffeurs with limos.

"I had never been in a limousine before," said rightfielder Hannah Arkin, 13. "I guess it was a good time to start."

That taste of the big leagues Tuesday was only one of the perks of the Little League Softball World Series. The all-stars of the New Hyde Park Little League will take the field Thursday in the 10-team tournament, a challenge on a bigger stage and under brighter lights than any of the team's previous games.

"We're all definitely nervous," said leftfielder Gabby Morales, 13. "We're playing to be the best team in the world."

Her squad -- made up of the 11 best players from the New Hyde Park Little League -- is the first Long Island ballclub to qualify for the softball tournament since an Islip squad did in 1993.

A win would make it the only New York State team to be crowned world champion in the tournament's 39 years.

Six American teams, and clubs from Canada, Mexico, Holland and the Philippines will compete for the title.

"How could it get any better?" said coach Tom Donnelly, adding that more than 50 family members and friends had accompanied the Long Island team across the country.

"It calms us down knowing that we know people in the stands," said Morales, who will be an eighth-grader next month at New Hyde Park Memorial High School. The tournament is for girls who were 11 or 12 years old as of Dec. 31.

Their arrival Tuesday in Oregon capped a yearlong journey consisting of winter practices indoors, pitching lessons from Hofstra University star Olivia Galati and about 70 games, Donnelly said. "That's what it takes when you're trying to win at this level," he added.

With a combination of speed, defense, good pitching from Melissa Ward and Jenny Hickey, and timely hitting up and down the lineup, the team won both the New York State tournament and the Eastern Regional Tournament to qualify. Its eventual World Series berth earned the players and coaches free airfare and hotel stays in Portland, courtesy of Little League.

Players were outfitted Wednesday with new uniforms reading "EAST," helmets and bats. The afternoon ceremony that officially began the tournament was followed Wednesday night by an individual skills competition testing players' power, speed and pitch velocity.

Despite the fanfare, parents applauded the team's focus.

"They realize the situation they're in, but they never let it rattle them," Robert Kuzler, father of utility player Nicole Kuzler, said in a phone interview from Portland.

The New Hyde Park squad plays a team from the Philippines -- 8,500 miles from Long Island -- in its 1 p.m. opener Thursday.

"These are the best teams in the world," Arkin said. "This is like the real World Series."

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