BELOIT—Richard “Butters” Carlson stands out on a baseball diamond and not just because he towers over many of the other 12-year-olds.

“People who come to see us play notice how big he is and that might take the attention away from how unbelievable a ballplayer he is,” Carlson’s coach, Joe Bennie, says. “The thing I like most about him is that he is such an incredible competitor. You can’t teach that. He’s not great because he’s a big kid. He’s great because he has awesome ability and drive. His potential is limitless.

“I often go from a coach to a fan when I watch Butters. I’m always thinking, what is he going to do next?”

Over the past weekend, Carlson helped the 12U Bennie Elite capture the Travel Baseball Rankings World Series championship in Dayton, Ohio. In the title game against the second-ranked team in Michigan (49th in the nation), Bennie Elite blanked B45 Academy Michigan, 8-0, as Carlson threw a complete game shutout.

Bennie Elite went 7-0 in the tournament against the best teams in the Midwest and hiked their overall season to 35-6. They finished the season on a 12-game winning streak.

“I wasn’t expecting to do as well as we did in this tournament because there was some really good competition there,” Carlson said. “But we did really well, particularly our play in the outfield.”

The tournament Most Valuable Player award went to the South Beloit native who Bennie describes as a pre-teen Shohei Ohtani. When he isn’t playing first or serving as the designated hitter, he’s on the mound.

“His bat speed is insane,” Bennie said. “His concept of timing is terrific. His plate discipline, hand-to-eye coordination, bat control, they’re all remarkable. You could go on and on about his hitting tools. He has probably been our most dominant hitter since we started the program three years ago. You just never see him not on base or doing damage. It’s incredible to watch.”

In the seven games in the TBR World Series, the three-time captain went 12-for-16 (.750), drove in seven runs, scored nine runs and belted two home runs.

Carlson also had a terrific tournament on the mound. In 10 innings, he allowed only two earned runs and struck out 10.

“He has gotten better and better as a pitcher,” Bennie said. “He has a very clean arm action with an awesome fastball and off-speed stuff he has a great feel for that he can locate beautifully. He’s been my go-to championship arm for three years. I actually ask him which game he’d rather pitch, the championship or the game to get us into the championship.”

In Dayton, he pitched in both.

“We did so well in the semis that he pulled me early and saved me for the championship game,” Carlson said.

“Watching everything come together for him in the tournament was awesome,” Bennie said. “He just dominated. He was the best player on the field in a tournament that had 20 to 25

In one of the world’s first experiments in reopening borders, the first quarantine-free flight from Australia landed in New Zealand on Monday, reciprocating a half-bubble in place since October that allowed New Zealand visitors to fly the other way.

The separation has been keenly felt because the two countries normally are closely linked. More than half a million New Zealanders live in Australia, and citizens of each country have working rights in the other. They share a mutual love of sports such as rugby and cricket, with players regularly crossing between the two countries to compete. Before the pandemic, Australia was New Zealand’s largest source of international tourists.

In Queenstown, a tourist spot on New Zealand’s South Island, two firetrucks trained their hoses over the runway to create an arch of water for the first plane to taxi through when it landed about 2:30 p.m. local time. A local tour company was offering free bungee jumps to passengers willing to launch themselves headlong into a river canyon immediately after the flight landed.

“It’s like we’re back in the business we were designed for,” Adrienne Young-Cooper, chair of the Queenstown Airport, said on local television. “We knew it was going to be a long time, but we didn’t know quite how long,” she said of the coronavirus travel shutdowns.

Among the well-wishers in Sydney were a group of drag queens in sparkling costumes and colorful wigs. They carried gold balloons and signs saying: “We’ve missed you, New Zealand.”

“It is truly exciting to start quarantine-free travel with Australia. Be it returning family, friends or holidaymakers, New Zealand says, ‘Welcome and enjoy yourself,’ ” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Travel bubbles have been under discussion around the world since early in the pandemic, but logistics and shifting patterns of virus spread have complicated such plans. Border closures are most prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region.

Singapore and Hong Kong were scheduled to launch an air travel bubble in November. However, the plan was delayed after Hong Kong saw a surge in cases.

The Pacific nation of Palau welcomed back tourists this month from Taiwan, where domestic transmission of the virus has been tightly controlled, after a year of closed borders caused significant economic losses. Palau is one of the few nations not to have recorded any cases of the virus, and it has moved swiftly to vaccinate its small population of 18,000.

New Zealand has seen nearly 2,600 cases during the pandemic, with 26 deaths. Australia has had more than 29,000 cases and 910 deaths. Both nations have gone significant stretches without domestic spread, but they have seen periodic flare-ups.

Ardern earlier this month warned people to prepare for their travel plans to be disrupted if there is a coronavirus outbreak in either country.

Among those jubilant about the border reopening were fly-in-fly-out mine workers on remote Outback mines who, before the pandemic, would often return home during weeks

By NICK PERRY, Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — As the passengers walked a little dazed through the airport gates, they were embraced one after another by family members who rushed forward and dissolved into tears.

Elation and relief marked the opening of a long-anticipated travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand at the Wellington Airport on Monday. Children held balloons and banners and Indigenous Maori performers welcomed the arrivals home with songs.

The start of quarantine-free travel was a long time coming for families who have been separated by the coronavirus pandemic as well as to struggling tourist operators. It marked the first, tentative steps toward what both countries hope will become a gradual reopening to the rest of the world.

Danny Mather was overcome to see his pregnant daughter Kristy and his baby grandson for the first time in 15 months after they flew in from Sydney for a visit on the first flight after the bubble opened. What did they say to each other?

“Not a thing,” he said, laughing. They just hugged. “It’s just so good to see her and I’m just so happy to have her back.”

Kristy Mather said it was overwhelming to be reunited with her family and it was amazing the bubble had opened.

“I wished it had happened earlier, but it’s happened now,” she said. “I just wanted to get on that first flight because you never know, it may go south. Let’s hope it sticks around.”

Danny Mather said he wanted to keep New Zealand safe from the virus but also thought the time was right to open the bubble.

The idea of a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand had been talked about for months but faced setbacks because of several small virus outbreaks in both countries, which were eventually stamped out.

To mark the occasion, Wellington Airport painted an enormous welcome sign near its main runway and Air New Zealand ordered some 24,000 bottles of sparkling wine, offering a complimentary glass to adult passengers.

Air New Zealand’s Chief Operating Officer Carrie Hurihanganui said the carrier had previously been running just two or three flights a day between the two countries but that jumped to 30 flights on Monday carrying 5,200 passengers.

She said the day marked a turning point and people were excited.

“You can feel it at the airport and see it on people’s faces,” she said.

The leaders of both countries welcomed the bubble, saying it was a world-leading arrangement because it aimed to both open borders and keep the virus from spreading.

“Today’s milestone is a win-win for Australians and New Zealanders, boosting our economies while keeping our people safe,” Australian Prime Scott Morrison said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country was welcoming the new arrivals.

“The bubble marks a significant step in both countries’ reconnection with the world and it’s one we should all take a moment to be very proud of,” she said.

Travelers who lined up at

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — As the passengers walked a little dazed through the airport gates, they were embraced one after another by family members who rushed forward and dissolved into tears.

Elation and relief marked the opening of a long-anticipated travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand at the Wellington Airport on Monday. Children held balloons and banners and Indigenous Maori performers welcomed the arrivals home with songs.

The start of quarantine-free travel was a long time coming for families who have been separated by the coronavirus pandemic as well as to struggling tourist operators. It marked the first, tentative steps toward what both countries hope will become a gradual reopening to the rest of the world.

Danny Mather was overcome to see his pregnant daughter Kristy and his baby grandson for the first time in 15 months after they flew in from Sydney for a visit on the first flight after the bubble opened. What did they say to each other?

“Not a thing,” he said, laughing. They just hugged. “It’s just so good to see her and I’m just so happy to have her back.”

Kristy Mather said it was overwhelming to be reunited with her family and it was amazing the bubble had opened.

“I wished it had happened earlier, but it’s happened now,” she said. “I just wanted to get on that first flight because you never know, it may go south. Let’s hope it sticks around.”

Danny Mather said he wanted to keep New Zealand safe from the virus but also thought the time was right to open the bubble.

The idea of a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand had been talked about for months but faced setbacks because of several small virus outbreaks in both countries, which were eventually stamped out.

To mark the occasion, Wellington Airport painted an enormous welcome sign near its main runway and Air New Zealand ordered some 24,000 bottles of sparkling wine, offering a complimentary glass to adult passengers.

Air New Zealand’s Chief Operating Officer Carrie Hurihanganui said the carrier had previously been running just two or three flights a day between the two countries but that jumped to 30 flights on Monday carrying 5,200 passengers.

She said the day marked a turning point and people were excited.

“You can feel it at the airport and see it on people’s faces,” she said.

The leaders of both countries welcomed the bubble, saying it was a world-leading arrangement because it aimed to both open borders and keep the virus from spreading.

“Today’s milestone is a win-win for Australians and New Zealanders, boosting our economies while keeping our people safe,” Australian Prime Scott Morrison said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country was welcoming the new arrivals.

“The bubble marks a significant step in both countries’ reconnection with the world and it’s one we should all take a moment to be very proud of,” she said.

Travelers who lined up at Sydney and Melbourne airports early

Emotions were high on Monday as excited passengers set off on the first flights between Australia and New Zealand as part of a a quarantine-free COVID-19 “travel bubble”, allowing families long separated by the pandemic to reunite.

“(I’ll) yell, scream cry, hug, kiss, (feel) happy – all of these emotions at once,” Denise O’Donoghue, 63, told the AFP news agency at Sydney airport as she prepared to board her flight.

The arrangement means passengers can make the three-hour flight across the Tasman Sea without having to complete a mandatory COVID-19 quarantine when they arrive.

Television footage showed emotional scenes at the airports with families reuniting and dozens of passengers thronging the international departure terminals at Australian airports.

“It is the first time in 400 days that people can travel quarantine-free and we are adding 16 return flights a day to New Zealand, and they are full,” Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday.

Qantas will increase flights between the countries to about 200 each week, while Air New Zealand said it had quadrupled its flights to 30 on Monday, with its airplanes flying into New Zealand at 97 percent capacity.

“It is truly exciting to start quarantine-free travel with Australia. Be it returning family, friends or holiday-makers, New Zealand says: ‘Welcome and enjoy yourself,’” New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Hope for normality

Australia was New Zealand’s largest source of international tourists before the pandemic, accounting for about 1.5 million arrivals or 40 percent of total visitors in 2019.

There were emotional scenes as quarantine-free travel resumed between New Zealand and Australia after nearly 400 days [Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via Reuters]

The border opening received saturation coverage from media in both countries, with live television reporting from airports providing regular updates on the progress of flights.

On a grass embankment at the foot of Wellington Airport’s runway, the words “WELCOME WHANAU” (family) were spelled out in giant letters.

Lorraine Wratt, a New Zealander stranded by the pandemic while visiting family in Australia, told AFP it was “wonderful” to be able to travel again.

“We’re very excited to be heading back home but we’re gonna miss our family (in Australia) big time,” she said.

More than half a million New Zealand-born people live in Australia, just more than 2 percent of Australia’s population of nearly 26 million.

Australia and New Zealand largely closed their borders to non-citizens and permanent residents more than a year ago, helping to keep their COVID-19 numbers relatively low compared with several other developed countries.

Other international arrivals into both countries must go through a two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense.

Australia has recorded just more than 29,500 virus cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has had about 2,200 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.

There were hugs aplenty as Australia and New Zealand began a COVID-19 ‘travel bubble’ [Saeed Khan/AFP]

Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison warned travellers to prepare for disruptions to travel