As the team clambers into the cars, Coach Frank Dashnaw does a final head count. Thirteen?

He counts again. Thirteen.

"Who's missing?" he yells, then immediately, "Where are Dean and David?"

"They were at breakfast," Dashnaw's son, Frankie, a team member, offers as he loads the softball bats into the van.

But they had missed the team picture.

"They went back sleep," adds Assistant Coach Steve Waleisky with some difficulty.

Dashnaw rushes to the fourth floor of the University Towers in Raleigh, N.C., the team's home for the past week. The Ohio game is one of the biggest of their lives. Where could they be? Dashnaw opens the door to their dorm: Dean Munson is reading, and David Huland is in bed.

They haven't even gotten to the ballpark, and the Away Boys are already making errors.

By all accounts, the Away Boys aren't even supposed to be at the Special Olympics World Games in North Carolina.

Heavy underdogs going into the Virginia state games last summer in Richmond, the Away Boys won their division by a miracle--Dean Munson's dramatic diving catch with the bases loaded and two out in the final inning, preserving a one-run victory.

It was a rare taste of success for a team that has grown accustomed to losing. The "unified" team, which pairs high-functioning disabled athletes with non-disabled partners, competes against non-disabled teams in a Prince William County adult slow-pitch softball league, and it almost always loses. "As far as I'm concerned," Coach Dashnaw has learned to say during his nine years as a Special Olympics coach, "every game is a tie."

Dean Munson, 29, hero of the Richmond game, does not fit the image of the Special Olympian triumphantly crossing the finish line, arms raised high. Dean is a math teacher in Alexandria. He is married. The day he left for the World Games, he learned his wife of three years was pregnant with their first child. He is, well, not special.

But in a way, Dean represents the future of the Special Olympics. He is an ambassador to the mentally handicapped for a mainstream society that for years in many ways has tried to shut the disabled out. Now he is among those who usher them in.

While controversial--why is a math teacher making diving catches in the Special Olympics, anyway?--mainstreaming has helped some disabled athletes blossom.

Dean's roommate, David, born with fetal alcohol syndrome and abandoned at birth by his teenage mother, didn't speak when he started playing unified softball at age 15. Ten years later, David is the team clown, bowing to the fans when he enters the game to pitch and throwing incessant barbs at his teammates from the bench. "He's our showpiece," his adopted mother, Ruth, says proudly.

Unification possibly has done more for the partners than the athletes. "I am involved for purely selfish motives," says Dean. "No matter how bad a day I have at work, I come out to the Special Olympics and it's better.

"We're no different than a normal softball team," he adds, "except we don't win."

It's 2-2 in the bottom of the second inning and the Away Boys' bench is quiet. They have already lost their first two games by 24 runs, and their dreams of a gold medal are fading fast.

The game is tied, but the Away Boys look lost.

The Away Boys have men on first and second with one out when Robert "Hollywood" Harris steps to the plate. Robert's square frame and powerful torso cut the perfect profile of a slugger.

Robert digs in. He belts a line drive over the center fielder's head. The Away Boys bench erupts. Robert is rounding second when the ball stops rolling. He catches up to the two runners ahead of him, and the three teammates trot across home plate in a conga line.

Virginia 5, Ohio 2. For the first time in the tournament, the Away Boys are winning. It's their turn to stand, their turn to cheer.

In the dugout, Hollywood is greeted with hugs and high-fives. He is beaming. For once, Robert doesn't mind showing his teeth when he smiles.

Ever since he broke his four front teeth during a car accident, Robert has tried to guard his grin behind clenched lips. It hasn't been easy for the fast-talking, ebullient 28-year-old with a raspy high-pitched voice and rambunctious sense of humor. But his job as a janitor at the Pentagon doesn't include benefits, and his Woodbridge family can't afford a dentist.

So he has covered up the problem.

Not for long. The Special Olympics offers athletes free health care. At the Opening Eyes booth, one team member was diagnosed with cataracts, another with pigmentation in his eye. Four left with free glasses.

At the Special Smiles booth, the dentist couldn't believe Robert's teeth. His molars are impacted; his roots are abscessed. The dentist said that Robert shouldn't be able to function, the pain should be so excruciating.

Robert has just learned to accept the burn.

But when the dentist asked Robert if he wants his teeth fixed when he gets home, Robert didn't hesitate to say yes.

The Away Boys are still leading Ohio, 6-4, going into the fourth inning. Memories of their Richmond upset victory are being stirred: After two embarrassing losses, they finally are coming together as a team. They are going to take home gold after all, just as they predicted before they left home.

Scott Pederson isn't so sure. He watches with exasperation as Ohio wins 12-7 after two consecutive four-run innings.

Scott: "We let them back in the game. We just fell apart."

Frankie: "But we had fun, right?"

Scott: "If you call losing fun, then I'll quit."

Frank Dashnaw has been involved in Special Olympics almost since its inception.

Started in 1963 as a summer camp for the mentally disabled at the home of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics grew quickly and was in desperate need of volunteers. Dashnaw, a junior in 1967 at the Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, agreed to help coach swimming.

Eight years later, Dashnaw's first son, Frankie, deprived of oxygen during a breech birth, suffered brain damage. "I passed the audition in my early efforts," Dashnaw says. "The Lord was looking for place for this child, and this was the place."

After the Ohio loss, the team eats an early dinner before its evening game. Members watch the TV as the Chicago Cubs stage a comeback against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Mid-bite, Coach Dashnaw asks, "Where is Lance?" He gets up. "Have any of you seen Lance?"

Lance, Dashnaw's 17-year-old non-disabled son who plays on the team, has been missing before. In September, when the team registered for the World Games, Lance ran away for an entire weekend. When he finally turned up, Lance had pentagrams drawn all over his hands.

"I knew then that I was dealing with something over my head," his father says.

Lance's problems started during his sophomore year at Stafford High School. He began experimenting with drugs. He painted his fingernails black and dyed his hair blond. He wore a trench coat. His friends got him into cult worship.

On Thanksgiving day, he was caught stealing a bike--"I was just using it for transportation," Lance still protests--and was sent to Rappahannock Detention Center in Fredericksburg.

For two weeks he read, slept or just sat in his cell, fuming.

He was under house arrest when he was released, and at first he stayed out of trouble. But he knew he was slipping, that he would be on drugs again.

At age 3, Lance was adopted. He was too young to remember his biological parents, and grew up calling Frank Dashnaw dad.

When he started high school, Lance's relationship with his father, a demanding man who practices a tough love, had soured.

"I said, 'They are not my real parents; I can do what I want.' That thought snowballed until last year--I wanted to talk to a social worker to get placed into another family."

In January, Lance was pulled without warning from school and taken to Youth for Tomorrow, a group boarding home for troubled youth in Bristow.

"He felt tricked into coming here and was traumatized, frozen," Barrie Baker, his house father at Youth for Tomorrow, says. "It brought back memories when he was 2 or 3 years old, being dumped from home to home."

Today, Lance says his parents saved his life by taking him to Youth for Tomorrow. He and his father have largely repaired their relationship.

Still, letting Lance go to the World Games in the middle of his nine-month program is unprecedented, and a huge risk. Barrie Baker explains why he let him go: "Lance was disadvantaged by his adoption and has a personal inferiority complex. Every day, he has had to live with being different. He identifies with those who have a disability."

In Raleigh, Lance has taken advantage of his first freedom in six months. Two nights ago, he stayed up all night, chatting on e-mail. But in the following day's game, he struck out three times and was benched for throwing his bat.

Now, Lance is missing.

"There are only two doors out of this building," his father says, recalling the moment eating dinner when he realized he hadn't seen Lance in hours. "One goes to Olympic Town, and the other goes to the street where he can get whatever it is he might be looking for. I wasn't sure which door he would take."

Lance shows up as the team is dressing for the game. He is nervous. He says he went to Olympic Town and wandered the venue for several hours, alone.

The Away Boys arrive to the field early, in time to watch Team North Carolina stage a dramatic seven-run comeback against Team Arizona to win 13-11. The feeling among the players is unmistakable: This is going to be our game.

While they take infield practice, black thunderheads roll in menacingly. The sky opens just as the team rushes into the cars to go back to the dorms.

"We lost the toss!" Coach Dashnaw tells his team triumphantly. "An omen! There's no way we're going to lose now!"

The Away Boys have flipped six coins at Raleigh, and they have won every toss.

Until now.

In their quiet desperation, they are looking for something, anything, that might help them win.

The Away Boys take the field for infield practice, and it is a comedy of bobbles, overthrows and miscues.

Meanwhile, Team Georgia does jumping jacks in their pristine all-white uniforms and gather for a team cheer. When they take infield practice, they are a model of cool, clean precision, rocketing perfect throws and sharply turning double plays.

The Away Boys are shut out in the top of the first, and Scott Pederson steps to the mound. He doesn't put on his hat until he gets on the field, a superstition he borrows from his dad, Vern.

Frankie bobbles a hard grounder, and the leadoff Georgia batter takes first.

Scott has wanted to pitch since he was 13, and for seven years he and Vern worked on his delivery and accuracy.

A bloop single to center, force out at second.

Scott suffered his first seizure when he was 19. He woke up with a searing headache that his parents dismissed as a sinus infection. During his first period class, just as his teacher turned to the blackboard, he collapsed. He doesn't remember anything, but he was told he was convulsing all over. He had a black eye from his impact with the carpet.

Another single.

Scott knows that slow-pitch softball is a hitter's game. He also knows that the only way a pitcher can be effective is by putting spin on the ball. But his fine motor skills are limited--simply getting the ball over the plate is an accomplishment.

The batter hits the ball higher and harder and farther than anyone in the tournament. The towering shot lands on the warning track 300 feet from home plate. It is just short of clearing the fence.

"This isn't funny," David says from the dugout. "This is a joke."

It is 11-0 by the time Scott leans his head against the fence in the dugout, his cap falling off his head. His eyes are narrow slits. He says something about the outfielders playing too deep.

Scott has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and part of his disability is a difficulty handling frustration. His anger rises like a fly ball and drops nearly as fast, so that he often follows a self-righteous outburst with a humble apology.

"It's a hitter's game," he sighs, his temper subsiding. "Sometimes you can't have things your way."

The humiliation continues. Robert forgets to touch home plate and is nearly thrown out as the team scores its first run. Someone slips on the base path, and David responds from the bench with a high-pitched cackling.

"What are you laughing about?" asks Chuck Waleisky, the team's first baseman. "This isn't a comedy show. If you want to watch TV, go home!"

The team manages to put together eight runs, and there is talk of a comeback. "When, next week?" David says, his hat as crooked as his smile. Then: "Anyone got a broom in their pocket?"

After the 17-8 loss, Scott's nerves are frayed and he starts criticizing his teammates.

"You want to fight!" roars Corky Moreno, the team's learning-disabled second baseman. It is the only thing Corky will say the entire tournament.

"It's the Tar-manian devil," Chris Knill says, pointing to the pattern on his collared shirt. He is on his way to a dance at Olympic Town the evening after the Georgia and Ohio routs.

Chris is in high spirits. He is always in high spirits. His only mood is "excited." Even after the Ohio loss, after he threw his glove into the dirt, he said he was only "half-excited."

Chris has a learning disability that makes it difficult for him to organize his thoughts or follow oral directions. But he has an incredible memory for names and full blue eyes that are hyper-aware of his surroundings.

He has gone all out for the dance. His hair is combed neatly, with wispy cowlicks protruding in the back. He immediately starts dancing with the prettiest girl on the dance floor, Molly Kelley of Raleigh, who is translator for the Bolivian team. She tells him she likes his shirt.

At the opening ceremonies, every member of the Away Boys took the Special Olympics oath: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Their dismal performance is testing their resolve. They know how long a journey it has been to the dirt playing fields of Raleigh. They remember the taunts and jeers, the moments they wanted to give in. They remember the hundreds of pitches just to get the ball over the plate, the thousands of swings before they could even tip the softball.

But the searing memory of five losses--losses they find humiliating and embarrassing, losses by a combined score of 83-31--clouds their vision.

They are a group of individuals who know everything about frustrated hope, punctured dreams. Their entire life they have aspired not to simply cope but to overcome.

Thankfully, in the Special Olympics, there is always a glimmer of hope--the Away Boys have only four teams in their division, and they are to play Team Florida for the bronze medal.

"I want this game in the worst way," Coach Dashnaw says at a team meeting before the game. "I want to leave with a medal--just one win this entire week."

The team is listless.

"Back home, at work, I promise them win all games. Let them down," says Steve Waleisky, the team's assistant coach who has been sidelined by severe scoliosis resulting from cerebral palsy. He works as a bagger at Food Lion. He looks down. "I got my team fired up. I told them, them win one, them shave my head." He lifts his cap to a full head of hair, then sighs. "I tell them at work, my team tried them best."

The Away Boys lose. By 12 runs. While the Florida team takes a picture next to the scoreboard, the Away Boys slowly pack up their equipment.

Scott, who is leaving the world games with a new pair of glasses, is arguing with his father. "Lighten up!" Vern tells him. "You stop it; keep your mouth shut."

Robert, who has the promise of a new set of teeth when he gets home, is off by himself.

Even Chris, the 33-year-old who has never kissed a girl on the lips but danced with the prettiest girl last night, is down.

Lance slips a lanyard over his neck, his identification card resting on his chest, which is covered in dirt from a headfirst dive. The young man in the picture is gaunt, his long hair parted in the middle and tucked behind his ears. Lance, who has a round face and short cropped hair, looks at his picture from less than a year ago.

"There is no way I will be able to forget who he is," he says, "but he's not a part of my life anymore."

Lance goes to Scott, to Robert, to Chris, and pats them on the back. "They are my family," he says.

He talks about training for the next World Games when he graduates Youth for Tomorrow in three months.

His head is raised, his eyes look straight ahead. He has done it.

His house parents at Youth for Tomorrow, his father--they trusted him though he didn't deserve their trust.

Now he has earned it. He chose the door that didn't lead to the Lance pictured on his ID.

Lance hurries to catch up with his team, and smiles broadly as he is given his last-place ribbon.

CAPTION: Away Boys Coach Frank Dashnaw and team member Chris Knill wait for opening ceremonies at the Special Olympics in Raleigh, N.C.