Diehard baseball fans would no doubt relish the opportunity to visit Cooperstown, N. Y., the legendary home of baseball in the United States. For a select group of young boys from the East Lincoln area, the opportunity is coming with an added bonus: the chance to play in a youth baseball tournament at Cooperstown Dreams Park the week of June 19.
The boys are members of the Lake Norman Royals, a newly formed team playing under the auspices of Lake Norman Sports, Inc. The organization was developed as "a feeder program for local high schools," according to founder Tim Wyatt, 46.
The Royals will be one of only 96 teams from around the country invited to play in the 10U (10 and under) American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame Invitational Tournament. According to a press release issued by Royals coach Tim Griffin, "Players and coaches will visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame, trade pins and compete with players from around the United States for a weekly national title. In addition, they will be enshrined in the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame."
The team will spend the week at Cooperstown in the Baseball Village clubhouses and take their meals in the team dining pavilion. They will play at least seven games and earn a seed to play in the single elimination championship tournament. In addition, each player will receive Cooperstown Dreams Park home and away jerseys, socks and hat, as well as an American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame ring.
Each of the team members had played on other teams in the East Lincoln Optimist baseball program in Denver before joining the Royals. They had progressed to "machine pitch" play, followed in short order by "kid pitch" when they came together to play "Challenge" baseball, a more demanding level of play, sponsored by The Optimist Club.
Challenge baseball gave the boys the opportunity to play travel ball in tournaments in Charlotte against other local teams.
The team "jelled quickly and won consistently in the Challenge tournaments," said Griffin, 40.
At that point, several of the coaches made the decision to start the Royals team and most of the Challenge players followed.
Chris Thornhill, parent of team member William, 10, observed, "These coaches saw the potential of this special group of boys."
The Royals are ranked fourth in North Carolina and 12th in the nation in 10U baseball, as determined by a point system based on various factors including games won, tournament records and level of competition.
"The boys are so hardworking and dedicated that they will show up for practice, rain or shine, any time of the day or night," said coach Mike Saunders, whose son Nolan, 10, is a member of the team.
Batting practices are on Tuesday and Thursdays from 6-8 p.m. at the Denver Batting Center. In addition, the team has field practice at Pumpkin Center Intermediate on non-tournament Saturday mornings and strength and agility workouts at LKN Fitness on Sundays.
Neglecting their schoolwork because of their team commitment is not an option. All boys on the team are required to maintain good grades in school, as determined by regular contact between the coaches and the parents.
"If you don't have the grades, you're not going to play," said Wyatt.
Team member Nolan Saunders is a fifth-grader at Pumpkin Center Intermediate School. Playing baseball, beginning with T-ball, since he was 4, he is a pitcher, catcher and outfielder. "Playing at Cooperstown is pretty cool," Nolan observes, "because we get to have a bat bag and get our names in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame."
Another team pitcher, Tyler Lilly, 10, is in the fourth grade at Rock Springs Elementary. He also serves as catcher in addition to covering first and third bases.
"I've been playing baseball since I was 6," Tyler said. "Going to Cooperstown is exciting because some major league players got their start there."
The cost for each player and coach going to Cooperstown is $745. Coaches, parents and team members hold various fundraisers throughout the year, including car washes, yard sales and a golf tournament. They also rely on sponsors to help pay the $500 required for each boy for uniforms, supplies and tournament fees.
Two of the 10 team members, Jeffrey Griffin and Tyler McPeak, are 9 years old. The others are all 10, including Connor Bain, Tanner Burns, Riley Dellinger, Evan Pawlowski, Nicholas Somita and Will Thornhill. Helping with the coaching duties are parents Greg Lilly, Freddy Solomita and Tim Pawlowski.
The Royals' Web site lists as the team's goals sportsmanship, teamwork, strength, character, discipline and dedication. All of these qualities and more will no doubt be evident as these 10 boys compete in the all-American pastime at Cooperstown in June.