Hernando County has a long history when it comes to Dixie League baseball, including multiple World Series championships. But the county has never played host to a Florida Dixie championship tournament.
That all is changing this week as Ernie Wever Youth Park in Brooksville is the site of the Florida Dixie Double-A Machine Pitch State Tournament for 7- and 8-year-olds.
With 16 teams from all over the state, the tournament provides the county with a boost in tourism as well as a worthy exhibition of baseball for spectators. The winner will advance to the Dixie regional tournament in Mulberry on July 30.
"We're excited about the opportunity," West Seminole American coach Euell Stallings said. "(Regional) is the World Series in (the players') minds. That's a far as they can go."
Last season, the host team, Avon Park, emerged with the title in the Double-A Division. Since the team isn't back to defend the crown, a new winner is guaranteed.
Quarterfinal games were scheduled for Tuesday night, and the final six teams in the double-elimination format included Paxton and West Seminole American, both of which were undefeated. Bartow and Okeechobee were to square off with one loss each, a rematch of first-round game won by Bartow, 10-9. Bushnell and Sebring, which also had one loss each, were also to meet.
The Hernando County Tourist Development Bureau has projected that more than 700 visitors will come to Hernando during the week. The Days Inn and Quality Inn in Ridge Manor West have been full of teams all week. In addition to the lift the tournament gives local hotels and restaurants, the down time for players, coaches and parents should translate into an economic boost for other businesses in the area as well.
"With an estimated 240 players, we're pretty excited," tourism development coordinator Tammy Heon said. "This event will play a role in helping the whole community. It brings revenue to the parks, the league, the hotels, the restaurants, local businesses and more."
There has been talk that Ernie Wever Youth Park might not survive this year's county budget discussions. The home to Hernando Youth League Dixie baseball for years, the park's closing would help the county balance its 2011-12 budget.
But with an event like this one drawing so much exposure, some people question the wisdom of closing the park.
"(Ernie Wever Youth Park) is huge," assistant tournament director Ed Ritter said. "It's not only big for what we do out there in our league, but we host a district tournament or more every year. That brings in a couple hundred kids from out of the area. They eat at our restaurants. They buy our gas.
"You just have to wonder what happens to those kids if they close this park."
Ritter has been a volunteer with HYL for more than 10 years, and although this is his son's final season in the organization, he plans to continue his service for years to come.
In the meantime, the fields are in immaculate condition for this week's tournament.
Visitors and volunteers alike have raved about the upkeep of the diamonds, saying that this is the best they have looked in years.
"The coordination between tourist development, HYL and the sports marketing committee (of the tourism bureau) really clicked," tournament director Mike Walker said. "The county stepped up, and there was good communication between everyone. It just shows us as a community what we need to do."
As for the actual tournament, the competitiveness has been stellar, even with the young age of the competitors. HYL was knocked out after going 1-2. Entitled to a spot in the bracket because the league was hosting the event, Brooksville fell in the first round to Franklin County, 12-11.
In the consolation bracket, the team got one victory by eliminating Blountstown, 8-6. But the thrill was short-lived as West Volusia National dispatched HYL by a tally of 15-6.
West Seminole American and Paxton have thrived on the fact that they were the final two unbeatens.
Led by the hitters such as Tyler Hopkins (with a .700 batting average from the leadoff spot), Blake Keegan and catcher Maverick Stallings, West Seminole American has dominated at the plate.
In a 16-6 win over Bushnell, Stallings had a bases-loaded triple to put the game out of reach.
"We watched Paxton play after our win (over Bushnell)," Euell Stallings said. "They certainly have some boys that can play. There are some real good teams in this tournament. On any given night, anyone could win."