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Friday, July 26, 2002

Beholden to none

Blacksburg Dixie district champs on their own
Unlike many of its competitors that are franchised through local recreation departments, the Blacksburg age 9-10 baseball team is fielded and operated by the families of the players.


BLACKSBURG - As 10-year-old Aaron Vest stood on first base in the Dixie Youth District 3 championship game last week, he wasn't thinking about all the work that went into putting his foot on that bag.

Aaron wasn't thinking about the $6,000 the Blacksburg Baseball Association raised through sponsorships and parents' donations. He wasn't thinking about where that money went - the insurance policy protecting him, the uniform he wore, the umpires who called his regular-season games, the franchise fee for the league he played in, the baseballs he used in practice, the fields his coaches rented from the town of Blacksburg.

No, Aaron was thinking about the game. About the possibility of winning this thing. About the loaded bases. About his teammate, Michael Simonetti, at the plate in a 3-2 game in the top of the sixth inning.

"As soon as I heard the crack of the bat," Aaron said. "I knew we had the game won."

Michael's triple that day drove home Aaron and two others, giving the Blacksburg 9-10 all-stars a 7-2 victory over Franklin County Central. In its first year in Dixie Youth, Blacksburg was the District 3 champion. The team opens state tournament play today in Madison Heights.

There are two parts to this team's story. Part 1 is the resiliency of 13 kids, new to this level of competition, going 5-0 in one of the state's most formidable districts.

Part 1 is Morgan Jones pitching four strong innings in the championship game after not pitching at all the previous four games. It's Isaac Trice catching every inning of every game, picking off runners and blocking the plate. It's Mallory Jones holding her own as the only girl in the tournament.

Part 1 is Zach Wall starting the winning rally with a single, then closing the game on the

mound. It's Ricky Sowers and Karl Sorensen keeping rallies going. It's Aaron Williams, Adam Brauns and Miles Hayter getting on base in key situations.

"They just play," said John Simonetti, one of the team's three coaches. "So they don't have to worry about Part 2."

But Part 2 is what made Part 1 possible. Part 2 is the Blacksburg Baseball Association, a nonprofit volunteer organization, bringing the option of Dixie Youth baseball to this town.

Nearly all Dixie Youth teams are franchised through town, city or county recreation departments. Christiansburg and Pulaski are two examples of New River Valley 9-10 Dixie Youth teams organized through their rec departments.

Blacksburg Parks and Recreation does not offer Dixie Youth for ages 12 and under. Instead, the town offers a rec league that plays locally and does not field traveling all-star teams in the postseason.

Two years ago, parents in favor of Dixie Youth formed the BBA - an organization modeled after the New River United Soccer Association - and got two 11-12 teams franchised independently of the town. They added two 9-10 teams this year. In all, 60 kids and their parents are involved.

"When you're a private organization like this," BBA president Don Gresh said, "you've got to get the word out yourself. Fliers, ads in the newspaper - you name it.

"It's been a tremendous amount of scratching and clawing just to get the team on the field."

The BBA covers all its own expenses, including renting fields from the town. Tuesday night, the all-star team practiced on one of the fields at Kipps Elementary after they discovered all the Virginia Tech intramural fields were booked.

"We're kind of a nomad team," said Erik Sorensen, the all-star team manager. "Trying to practice where we can, wherever there's a field available."

Is it worth it?

"To see the way the kids performed," Sorensen said, "the way they battled and they way the hustled, yeah, it's definitely worth it."

After the District 3 victory, the kids partied hard at PK's in Blacksburg. As the players paraded the trophy through the restaurant, strangers roared their approval of Part 1 of this story.

"People we didn't know were yelling like crazy, clapping their hands," Zach said. "It was awesome."

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