The road to the World Series begins in Durango.
This weekend, three local teams take to the diamond to settle which Four Corners town boasts the best ballplayers.
But there’s more than local pride on the line: The winners of the District 4 tournament will earn a spot at the state tournament and a chance to keep moving toward the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., in August.
“We want the kids to play the best baseball they can,” said Matt Pope, who manages the showcase 12-under team that will be playing against Bayfield and Cortez at Folsom Park starting Saturday. “Regardless of wins or losses, if they play the best baseball they have all year, we’d be tickled.”
Youth Baseball of Southwestern Colorado made the switch in affiliation from AABC to Little League last summer, making it possible to form a local district and host this weekend’s inaugural tournament across the region.
The 9-10 division is playing in Ignacio and the 10-11s in Cortez. The major division (12-under) and juniors (13-14) play right here at Folsom and the La Plata County Fairgrounds, respectively.
Unlike AABC, which required each city to pick one regular-season team, the newly adopted Little League format calls for an All-Star team, made up of the best players in each age group from each city. So executive Director of the YBSWC Roskow Roskowinski said he expects great baseball all around.
“We really have a good bunch of kids in every division,” Roskowinski said. “We really have a good chance of winning. I don’t know if we’ll win the whole thing – that’s a funny thing to say in your first year – but I think we really have a good chance to move on quite a ways.”
The major division, which is Little League’s flagship level and gets ESPN airtime during the Little League World Series, is Durango’s big show.
Picked from the city’s five regular-season teams, Pope’s lineup represents the best of Durango.
The roster: Alexander Hise, Jaxon Holl, Griffyn Hyson, Chandler Jeep, Gus Kidd, Will Klumpenhower, Roland Madrid, Dawson Marcum, Jason Pennington, Joe Pope, Kyle Pritchard and Dylan Ridgeway.
“All these kids were the leaders on their team,” Pope said. “The 1-2-3-4 hitters on their team. Some of them had to learn new roles; they can’t all be the cleanup hitter on an All-Star team.”
But Pope is optimistic about the way things are shaping up before play starts at 5:30 p.m. today with a Round 1 game between Bayfield and Cortez. Durango’s first game is 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Folsom.
“They’re really coming together as a team,” Pope said. “And they seem to be doing it all with a smile and a good attitude.”
“The kids have really stepped it up,” Roskowinski said.
Roskowinski said pitching will be key to success for the local boys, especially given the Little League rule that prohibits stealing bases until after the ball passes the batter. That makes it easier to concentrate on good pitching, he said, and makes for better youth baseball.
The Durango lineup is smattered with strong pitchers, Pope said, but so, too, is Cortez, which should be Durango’s primary competition.
“Cortez will be really strong,” Pope said. “We had some interleague play, and we played two of their teams, and one in particular put it to our team pretty good.”
If Durango can avoid that fate in the early rounds, the championship game is set to take place at 5:30 p.m. either Monday or Tuesday, if a team takes its first loss in the double-elimination tournament Monday night.
“I’m cautiously optimistic for them and confident,” Pope said. “I think our kids are going to hit the ball really well, and I think they can put a lot of runs on the board.
“I don’t remember it being this good as a kid. I think it’ll be a lot better quality baseball than (spectators) might expect out of 12-year-old kids. There’re some good ballplayers. ... They’re really handy on the ballfield, and they’re fun to watch.”
Roskowinski, who will get to watch a little of everything as he moves from site to site, said he expects good crowds all around but especially at Folsom and the Bayfield-hosted fairgrounds tournament, which will start at 11 am. today with a game between Durango and Ignacio.
That game will be followed by more locals, then will continue with two more games Saturday and a noon championship game Monday.
“That’s what makes it so cool,” Roskowinski said. “You’re going to find crowds everywhere.”
And he wasn’t afraid to make a bold statement about the 12-under team, either:
“I’ll predict them to win it.”