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Panama spoils Uganda’s debut at LLWS

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POSTED August 17, 2012 11:20 p.m.

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — Win or lose, the Little League World Series team from Uganda has become a hometown favorite.

The first team from Africa to advance to South Williamsport in the 66-year history of the tourney did fall in its debut Friday. Aguadulce, Panama, defeated the boys from Lugazi 9-3.

Uganda’s coaches said they didn’t expect any parents of the players to make the expensive transatlantic trip to Pennsylvania.

But Uganda has still drawn vocal fans who cheered wildly, especially after Daniel Alio’s towering home run to center in the sixth. He showed off a methodical homer trot that would have made David Ortiz proud.

“I thought I wouldn’t hit a home run,” the soft-spoken Alio said. “But my coach told me to make contact.”

Canada, Texas and Indiana also won Friday — Day 2 of the youth baseball marathon.

Alio and his teammates, though, were the biggest stars. Manager Henry Odong said they’re proud to represent Africa, where baseball is an emerging sport but not nearly as popular as soccer.

“The rest of Africa is behind us,” Odong said in recounting his message to players after early struggles at the plate. “People are watching ... just make contact.”

It’s been a special month already for Uganda sports after Stephen Kiprotich won gold in the men’s marathon race at the London Olympics.

No record crowds this year, unlike the tens of thousands who showed up each night in 2011 to root on Keystone kids from nearby Clinton County.

But the locals seemed to have taken to the scrappy Uganda team that is also one of the more popular squads at the Little League dorms. Third baseman Ronald Olaa has already developed a reputation as one of the top ping pong players in the rec room.

Friday was all about baseball.

They managed just three hits. They committed four errors.

But they had their share of highlights, too, like Alio’s homer.

Or Alio backpedaling into short right to make a tough catch on a high popup.

Or pitcher Tonny Okello making a lunging catch of a weak popup on the first-base line while trying to avoid the runner.

Not a bad start at all considering this team is used to playing back home on old soccer fields strewn with pebbles and the occasional anthill.

Uganda’s coaches hope their trip to the series and the experience playing before large crowds helps build more interest in baseball back home, where soccer is the dominant sport.

“This is the biggest crowd that we have ever seen,” Odong said. “I told them that no one even cares what we were doing” in rooting for the team.

Panama’s pint-sized players had their own treat Friday when injured Phillies All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz visited the team from his native country.

He encouraged them to have fun but to work hard on the diamond. Looks like they listened.

Ruiz said major leaguers always pay attention to the Little League World Series. Marlins first baseman Carlos Lee, who is from Aguadulce, has been calling the Little League team as well.

Starter Julio Goff struck out seven and allowed just a hit over 2 2-3 innings in drawing the tough starting assignment.

“Pitching here against Uganda, with that crowd, it made it very hard,” Goff said through interpreter Antonio Gonzalez, “but thank God that we won.”

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