WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - Sixteen teams gathered for the Little League World Series, some from thousands of miles away, but all feeling right at home.
"It's beyond exciting to be here, said Sammamish, Wash., assistant coach Matt Fitzgibbons. "We've kind of talked about it among the coaches and we were calling it the Augusta National of baseball. Everything is first class. The people are first class. The facilities are first class. It's exceeded our wildest expectations."
Newark, Del., pitcher Nate Hardcastle, 12, called it "probably the most exciting thing to happen to me so far in my life."
The 67th World Series begins in Thursday, when Panama will face Puerto Rico at 1 p.m.
Other games are Corpus Christi, Texas, vs. Sammamish, Wash., Australia vs. Mexico and South Nashville, Tenn., vs. Westport, Conn. The final is Aug. 25.
While that worldwide exposure might be enough to make the average 12-year-old a bit nervous, coach Tim Rogers of Westport, Conn., believes his squad that won 17 straight games to qualify can handle it.
"They've played a lot of baseball the last four years in travel tournaments," Rogers said. "They've been on big stages before so they don't let the moment get to them, or they haven't, at least."
A team from the Czech Republic is making its first appearance in Williamsport, and coach Pavel Chadim praised Little League Baseball officials for their commitment to the European Baseball Association.
"The last six years the level of baseball in Czech Republic, Germany, Italy has grown up unbelievably," Chadim said.
"We have the best fields for young players. It's not easy to teach them right way to play baseball if you don't have good field and we thank those who are behind the idea that anybody anywhere in the world can be star and our players can be star and feel like star. It's a great, amazing feeling."
Chadim also has the only girl on any of the 16 team rosters in Elishka Stejskalova. "It's not easy for her to fit in but she's unbelievable," Chadim said.
"It feels like normal," Stejskalova said. "I have two brothers, one older and one is twin. I beat him for the position."
When the Czech Republic faces perennial power Japan on Friday, his pitchers will throw fastballs and change-ups, he said. Curveballs cannot be thrown in the Czech Republic leagues until players are age 14.
"We don't have enough pitchers like U.S. or Japan," Chadimsaid. "We work fastballs and off-speed."
Another country making its first World Series appearance, the Australian contingent was enjoying the Little League moment so much that it chanted a cheer as it collectively jogged to its practice field on Wednesday.
"They're a pretty down-to-earth group of kids and they're pretty relaxed," Australia coach Glenn Tovey said.
"As soon as the second team came in here (Australia was first to arrive at Little League headquarters) and the third and the fourth, our kids went out and greeted them and broke down any language and cultural barrier that there is."
"My son has already said to me in the last three days straight that these have been the 'best days of my life.'"
Other first-round games Friday are Taiwan vs. Canada, Chula Vista, Calif., vs. Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Newark, Del., vs. Urbandale, Iowa.