By BOB PARASILITI
6:05 PM EDT, July 23, 2011
Whenever traveling in unknown territory, it's always good to have a knowledgeable guide nearby to show the way.
Seven Little League baseball teams from across the state came to Maugansville on Saturday for the opening ceremonies of the Maryland State 11-12 Tournament. It was a celebration of their accomplishments, but it was also the backdrop to what will be youth baseball's version of "The Amazing Race."
Jay W. Stouffer Field was the starting point for a monthlong journey filled with unique experiences and new destinations. Only one team will earn the right to advance for a chance to reach the finish line — the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
On what was being labeled a historic event for Maugansville, many came out to greet the players and give them a proper sendoff for the seven-day, double-elimination tournament. One person knew exactly where the teams were headed and had an idea of how to get there.
"This is your steppingstone," said Bill Abeles, who managed Hagerstown's Federal Little League during its run to the 2008 Little League World Series. "I'm very flattered and humbled to be asked to come here and speak to you. Our trip to the World Series wasn't much about me. It was very much about team. I hope my speech here is a part to catapult a team from Maryland to the next level."
The ceremony was the pageantry that led up to the first day of competition. Three games were played in Saturday's sweltering heat while Conococheague, the District 1 champs representing Western Maryland, enjoyed a first-round bye before debuting in their first game today at noon.
The teams gathered on the outfield warning track, standing behind their district championship banners. Each player was introduced to the crowd and received their state tournament pin and a handshake from District 1 Administrator Larry Hammond.
Meanwhile, parents and team followers jockeyed for position behind the fences for photos and videos of the events to help commit the day's events to memory.
Maugansville Little League President Kelly Colbert greeted the teams and spectators to the historic day that gave this small town the opportunity to host a tournament of this size. Thomas B. Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, greeted the out-of-town company, inviting them to take in the area's sites, while calling the tournament a "once-in-a-lifetime experience" for Maugansville.
And it ended with league founder and field namesake Jay Stouffer throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to a surprise catcher. The league arranged to have Stouffer's son, Jay Jr., secretly come in from Tennessee to catch the emotional ceremonial pitch.
"Jay is the founding father of Maugansville Little League. Everyone here has been touched by him," Colbert said while presenting Stouffer with a Maugansville jersey sporting the number 74 to commemorate the year the league began.
In the midst of it all, Abeles was the compass pointing the way for the players.
"You will see the play and the speed here will pick up," Abeles said. "The competition is very good. Listen to your coaches. They aren't playing the game, but they are here to guide you. They are like the rudder on a ship."
Abeles told the players that playing in the state tournament is a time to relish and something that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
"You will very fondly remember that banner you are holding," he said. "Treat it with respect. You might not remember all the little things and plays, but you will remember your time here and you will remember representing a good team. You will remember your teammates and coaches fondly."
Abeles said he still breaks out the two banners his Federal teams won and still gets hit with the memories. The 2008 team won both the Maryland title and Mid-Atlantic Region title to advance to the Little League World Series. The team just missed advancing out of pool play, but gave the Hagerstown area much exposure through televised games.
Many of the players from that team have advanced up the youth baseball ladder. A core of that unit helped North Hagerstown High School win the 2010 Maryland Class 2A state title.
One of the secrets to Federal's success was the ability to show individual pride.
"You are here, but your record is 0-0," Abeles said. "Everyone is watching you. Williamsport is watching you. Your games are being televised on the Internet, so your hometowns are following you. You aren't representing just your Little League, you are representing your hometown. Win or lose, let sportsmanship match your actions. Respect your teammates and respect your opponents. You don't have to like your opponents, but respect them.
"There are many of us who are older who would trade places with you for the chance to go back and play again. It is a great game ... respect it."
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