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Children showcase skills in Pitch, Hit and Run finals

KANSAS CITY -- The third-base dugout in the early-afternoon hours on Monday at Kauffman Stadium looked a little like a junior-high dance: girls on one side, boys on the other.

Except this was no dance setting, and these weren't ordinary kids. Decked out in Aquafina T-shirts as part of their baseball uniforms, these kids were preparing for the competition of a lifetime -- the Aquafina MLB Pitch, Hit and Run National Finals. And they were doing it at a real Major League stadium, on the very field where baseball's All-Stars would take batting practice just a few hours later.

Skills were tested in the areas of pitching, batting and throwing, and precision was key.

The pool of competitors was narrowed down to 24 finalists in an event that began weeks ago, with more than 685,000 participants. With Orioles announcer and ESPN analyst Gary Thorne standing about 3 feet away emceeing the event, the kids opened the competition by throwing a ball into a small opening backed by netting. Each accurate throw garnered 75 points, with each kid getting six chances to make the throws.

Each girl threw softballs at a strike zone 35 feet away, while the boys threw baseballs at the same target from 45 feet away. The event continued with hitting off a tee and running the bases.

For the third year in a row, a nationwide Girls Softball Division was part of the program which allowed girls to compete and advance separately from the boys throughout the competition.

The winners:

7-8 year-old girls:

Samantha Sherer, Miramar Beach, FL. MLB team: Rays

7-8 year-old boys:

Brett Hall, Cedar Park, TX. MLB team: Rangers

9-10 year-old girls:

Meghan Dougherty, Rensselaer, NY. MLB team: Yankees

9-10 year-old boys:

Sam Stanford, Los Angeles. MLB team: Angels

11-12 year-old girls:

Sloan Hammons, Valrico, FL. MLB team: Rays

11-12 year-old boys:

Kyler Fedko, Gibsonia, PA. MLB team: Indians

13-14 year-old girls:

Amber Dixon, Wallace, NC. MLB team: Braves

13-14 year-old boys:

Andrew Canady, Port Orchard, WA. MLB team: Mariners

Hall, the winner from Cedar Park, Texas, may have had a slight advantage heading into the competition, even if he didn't realize it.

His family met USA Olympic Gold Medalist Jennie Finch -- also known in some circles as the best softball player on the planet -- on the flight to Kansas City on Sunday. Finch was antsy to get to the All-Star festivities. Perhaps her enthusiasm rubbed off on the kid?

"I still get so giddy," Finch said. "Being around the All-Star environment is so special, and now being a mom, it just hits you in a different way. These young kids are dreaming of wearing this jersey one day -- it's where dreams are made. On the plane over, I met a kid who was in the Pitch, Hit and Run, and his whole family was on the plane and they were so pumped. That's what All-Star is all about, what Major League Baseball is all about -- inspiring and touching others."

Pitch, Hit & Run participants advance through four levels of competition, beginning at the local level -- which can be hosted by organizations, leagues or volunteers within a community -- and continuing through sectional and team competitions.

All 30 Major League clubs hosted team championships at their ballparks on weekends from May 26 through June 24. The top three competitors nationwide from each age group advance to the 2012 Aquafina Major League Baseball Pitch, Hit & Run National Finals.

Additionally, the 24 finalists made a special trip to MLB All-Star FanFest, an interactive baseball theme park and the largest baseball fan event in the world.