WRALL mystique evident as tourney goes into high gear

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Their popularity has yet to hit boy-band status here in the Pennsylvania heartland, but the Houston County kids still pack plenty of clout with the World Series throngs.

Baseball tourists and locals alike can be seen wearing the faded-gold T-shirts of the Southeastern sons and rooting them on like family.

As they gear up for their next nationally televised clash tonight in the U.S. semifinal against the crew from Chula Vista, Calif., Georgia’s bandwagon has attracted its share of autograph-seeking hangers-on.

Even at practice.

The other night at a tuneup for their showdown with the West squad, a handful of onlookers gathered at the fence for a peek. This while nearly 23,000 spectators were three fields away at the Series’ main stadium watching the West team duel the Southwest in one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament.

A boy from Drexel Hill, Pa., who was wearing a powder-blue West T-shirt, looked on while the Robins boys were put through their practice paces. His T-shirt, it turned out, was from last season, when the 13-year-old put his support behind the Hawaiian club that won it all.

“Last year, I picked the Hawaii team early on,” the boy, Tom Harrison, said. “This year, I’m taking this team. You can just tell.”

With the Warner Robins outfit’s recent heroics — winning the 2007 Series here and again this year with the softball girls hauling home an international title from Oregon — they have become the nearest thing Little League has to a brand-name program. Add to that the 2006 Columbus boys’ Series victory, and Georgia is every bit a youth-sports powerhouse.

“I think it’s probably the top team and top program in the nation right now,” Oscar Castro, manager of the California team that Warner Robins faces tonight, said. “They’re getting a lot of publicity over there, and we understand we’re in for a dogfight.”

After his boys lost to the Southwest team from Texas 6-3 Tuesday night — while the Southeast bunch was busy practicing nearby — Castro said the Georgians are “gonna be tough to beat.”

“They’re a good-hitting bunch and they’ve got very good pitching as well,” he said. “It’s gonna be a huge, huge challenge for us.”

The Warner Robins kids practiced for a few hours Wednesday and then, along with many of their parents, gathered at the Little League Museum to watch a DVD sent to them with well-wishes from the Atlanta Braves.

Chipper Jones told the boys, “Hope you guys bring it home this year.”

Kelly Johnson said they were “representing all of us down here in Georgia. Go get ’em.”

“Have a great rest of the tournament,” Brian McCann said.

Warner Robins manager Randy Jones also read a letter sent by the Braves’ marketing department: “We have complete confidence that Warner Robins American Little League will continue to compete as one of the best teams in the Little League World Series. ... Leave it all on the field.”

Added Jones, “We’re gonna give it everything we’ve got.”

The crowd tonight at Lamade Stadium will likely be in the neighborhood of 25,000 strong.

Warner Robins first baseman Cortez Broughton said he and his mates will be able to handle it, though. In saying so, he sounded like a seasoned pro when it came to being quoted.

“All we’ve got to do is play our game. They’ll play their game and we’ll see who comes out the best,” Broughton said. “You just don’t think about the crowd. Just think you’re back playing at a regular Little League game.”

Warner Robins outfielder Trey Maddox was pumped up after his team’s practice session, where coaches said the Peach State sluggers were finding their hitting strokes just in time for the tourney’s stretch run, where top-tier pitching often quiets even the mightiest swings.

“I think we’re gonna go out there and hit ’em,” Maddox said. “We have no fear, no worries. ... We just want to face the best and beat the best.”