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Israel is sending two national baseball teams to European Championships this month.
The under-21 team, which has never before been put together for the European Championships, is already in Italy, where it had its first game on Sunday.
The juvenile squad (ages 10-12) will head to the Czech Republic for the July 16-22 tournament, where it will face teams from the host country, Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Belarus and Russia.
Officials didn't know exactly what to expect from the under-21 team, which is one of 12 squads in the tournament, but Chaim Katz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, believed that both the juvenile and senior teams have a shot to be competitive.
"Italy, the Czech Republic, and Holland are characteristically powerhouses and have stronger baseball federations than we do," said Katz. "But, we feel that we are on the same level as other countries in the competition and we would be disappointed if we fell below them."
The under-21 team is comprised mostly of players ages 18-21 that have played baseball in the Maccabiah Games. Many of the players have played in IAB leagues, which continue to grow. Currently, there are about 2,500 youth playing baseball through the IAB.
Israel's juveniles hope to continue a positive trend in its results.
"We [the juvenile team] are getting better every year," said Katz. "We used to consistently finish in last place, but the juvenile team is slowly improving and at our last competition, we finished sixth."
The juvenile team this year, though mostly comprised of boys, also includes two girls. Since one of the girls felt uncomfortable wearing pants due to her religious beliefs, special accommodations were made with the Confederation of European Baseball to allow her to play in the tournament wearing a long skirt.
According to Katz, this type of diversity and tolerance is what makes the team unique. "The team has religious kids and non-religious kids, and the IAB is one of the few sports organizations that is tolerant to everyone's religious beliefs," he said.
Both teams practice at the Yarkon Sports Complex in Petah Tikva and last week participated in a clinic sponsored by the IAB that featured former Jewish major leaguers and the head coach of Yeshiva University's baseball team, Norman Ringel.
"I was impressed with their skills but their problem is they lack the baseball instincts necessary to succeed," said Ringel. "Also, their hitting is weak and when you have weak hitting, every other aspect of the game is magnified."
The tips from Ringel and the former major leaguers will be put to the test on the international stage over these two weeks.