Home plate: Lemon Park hosts first ever regional tournament

Even before the first ball was pitched or bat swung, Team Barnwell had already scored a home run.

"Team Barnwell" was the city as it hosted its first softball and baseball tournament for mostly out-of-county recreational traveling teams.

The two-day tournament, run through the East Coast Ball organization, featured teams converging on Lemon Park's four ballfields. The division represented included boys 12-and-under baseball teams and girls 12-and-under and 14-and-under softball teams.

The tournament ran May 23 and 24. Two more tournaments have been scheduled for June and July.

The main player for Team Barnwell was Lemon Park.

Newly renovated and expanded, the park officially reopened April 17 after nearly a year of construction. The city broke ground on the park's refurbishments Aug. 21, 2008.

A second phase of Lemon Park is still under construction and will be completed later this summer. This phase will include a 300-foot ballfield, a t-ball field, playgrounds and additional parking area, said Emily Randell, the city recreation director.

"It's been an all-out city effort. We've had everyone out here," Randell said of getting the park ready for the tournament.

The day before the tournament the park was already full of activity as city employees performed last-minute cleaning and stocked the concession stand.

Randell estimates the tournament involved around 200 players since 17 teams showed up. Each team has between 12 and 14 players, she said.

Overall, Randell figured that about 800 players, parents and officials attended the inaugural tournament.

Teams came from as far away as Jacksonville, Fla., Georgia and South Carolina, she said.

Barnwell was represented during the tournament with one 12-and-under boys baseball team and one 14-and-under girls softball team playing.

The tournament was an economic boon to the city too.

"We know from an economic development side that a lot of people stayed in town Saturday night like at the Winton Inn and people went out in town to eat," Randell said after the tournament.

"We've gotten a lot of calls on that - about where teams can stay; restaurants they can eat at and what they can do in down times when they are not playing," she said the day before the tournament.

"We are doing little ‘Welcome to Barnwell' packets and have set up a ‘Welcome to Barnwell' tent with local information," Randell said. "A few local restaurants have given us coupons to put in the packets when the teams are in town."

The tournament was supposed to consist of 34 games along with the championship game, but heavy downpours cut the playing time short for the second day of the tournament, May 24, Randell said.

Sporadic light rains fell Saturday, but the games continued.

Randell estimated the tournament played about 25 games before the tournament was called due to rain.

"We were able to get in all the games Saturday. Sunday we ended up calling off games and playing tiebreakers," she said. "We played in the rain until noon. At noon (Sunday) we called the people off the fields."

The Barnwell 12-and-under team ended up winning in its category. In girls softball, the Camden team won the 12-and-under division while the Jets of Lexington won the 14-and-under series.

Getting Barnwell as a stop on the East Coast Ball circuit wasn't too hard, Randell said.

"I've had a lot of help with local people who have been on these type teams who have gotten me contact numbers and names to call," she said.

Long before the first spade of dirt was overturned at Lemon Park, it was envisioned that the renovated park would host regional tournaments, said Lynn Cox, the director of the city's tourism and community development services department.

"The idea of the park came out of the master plan," Cox said of the comprehensive plan for city improvements.

The original idea was to have the fields at Fuller Park, but there wasn't enough land, she said.

Barnwell City Council set up a sports committee to help with Lemon Park and tournaments, Randell said.

"I had a lot of help with getting the tournament set up and making Barnwell a tournament site," she said.

Attending Lemon Park's inaugural tournament was its director, Randy Baker of Columbia.

"This is practically in my backyard," he said of Barnwell's tournament.

"We basically run out of four states. We are the fastest growing fast pitch league in America," he said. "Most of my umpires are college umpires."

East Coast Ball as a league stretches from as far south as Titusville, Fla. and as far north to Raleigh, N.C. with teams in Georgia, Baker said.

Baker has been an NCAA umpire for the last 28 years and still officiates, he said.

Parents of local athletes on traveling teams like the fact there is now a tournament in their own backyard as well.

"We've always had to travel. Now we can host some of this stuff. It's good to sit at home in Barnwell and watch the game instead of having to travel," said Scotty Hankins.

Hankins's son, Clay Hankins, played in the tournament for the 12-and-under Barnwell All-Stars.

Other than a shortage of parking, Hankins said he had not heard any complaints about the tournament.

"I think the biggest thing is the parking. Once they get that situated, I think they will be fine," he said.

Katrina Deal sat in a camp chair underneath an umbrella to ward off Saturday's sporadic showers as she watched the game from behind home plate. Her daughter, Anna Griffin, was catcher for the 14-and-under Barnwell softball team, Diamond Devils.

"It's nice to be in our hometown and have money coming into our community. Plus the field is beautiful," she said. "It's fabulous. It's a good place for the kids to be. I hope they can keep it up."

Deal has been watching her daughter play ball for four years, she said.

Tim Schatzer echoed Deal's sentiments. Schatzer, of Barnwell, was watching his daughter Victoria Schatzer play for the Diamond Devils.
"This is one of the smartest things that Barnwell has done in a while," he said.

Randell said that despite the heavy rains, the tournament ran smoothly and that several teams mentioned they would like to come back.

"We got a lot of positive compliments on the park," she said.