08 23 2014
  12:53 pm  
     •     
Healthy youth

(CNN) -- Barely after dawn, the crack of a bat breaks the early morning silence in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Nestled in the valley, this small town is the home of the Little League Baseball World Series.

Every August, tens of thousands of fans pack the stands to cheer on teams from across the United States and around the world - each hoping to be crowned World Series champion, the pinnacle of youth baseball.

But long before the crowds arrive, one team is already hard at work in the batting cages. Down the hill, in the shadow of the empty stadium, they hit pitch after pitch. Working hard is nothing new for these young players -- they've already had to overcome more obstacles than most to get here, both on and off the baseball field.

This is the team from Lugazi, Uganda, and in the 66-year history of the Little League World Series, they are the first team to represent Africa.

Lugazi, located 50 kilometers from the country's capital of Kampala, exists primarily because of a sugar-producing factory run by the Mehta Group. It employs a majority of the town, including the coach of this team -- Henry Odong.

Odong is one of Uganda's original baseball players, a rarity in this football-crazed country. He shares the dream of his young players -- to some day get a Ugandan player into the Major Leagues.

"I think getting here to the kids is a great motivator because I tell them I'm trying my level best to produce you guys to get to Major League Baseball," Odong said. "It's all a matter of them working very hard and trying their level best to put things right, and I hope the rest of the world will get to know that you play baseball."

But Odong's group of 11-year-olds from Lugazi should actually be the second team to make the Little League World Series. Last year, a different team from Uganda's capital of Kampala won the Middle East-Africa regional tournament, held each year in Poland. Winning the tournament earned them the right to come to Williamsport, but an issue with documentation prevented the team from getting visas to the U.S., and so they never made it.

But what happened last year opened the door for this year's team when Lugazi won in Poland. A joint effort by the team's coaches, the U.S. Embassy, and Little League helped ensure they would not be denied. And so, they became the first team to represent Africa in Williamsport. While Uganda's documentation issues are far from solved, this has been an important first step.

"We feel very, very good. We would be the second [team], but last year, I don't know what happened but they didn't get to come," said shortstop Tonny Okello. "So we got the chance to come represent Africa for the first time."

For Okello and the rest of these young boys, baseball is so much more than just a game. It helps them forget -- even just for a few hours -- the hardships of home. It is especially true for Okello. His mother is suffering from breast cancer.

"Baseball, other sports, it helps me to forget some of the problems there at home," Okello said. "I just sit there and start thinking of my mother because she's sick with cancer. I know she's having a hard time...but she doesn't make it look that hard."

None of the family members from Lugazi were able to afford the trip, but Uganda still received the loudest cheer of all when they were announced at the opening ceremonies. Throughout the tournament, fans were seen wearing Uganda shirts and hats, and constantly asking the team for photos and autographs.

After a week in Williamsport, the night of Uganda's first game finally arrived. Their opponent was Panama, winners of the Latin America regional. Panama has sent 7 teams to the Little League World Series, but that didn't intimidate the first-timers from Lugazi. Their very first batter, Justine Makisimu, dug in at the plate, and got a hit on the first pitch he saw.

Uganda ended up losing the game -- and the next one -- so they were eliminated from the tournament. But they did win a consolation game against the U.S. team from Oregon, earning the African continent its first-ever win at the World Series.

But wins and losses weren't the focus here. What these kids accomplished extended far beyond the ball field -- an accomplishment not lost on them.

"I like history," 11-year-old third baseman Ronald Olaa said. "And we've made history."

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