BLACKSBURG - Gloves vacuum sharply hit ground balls up off the infield dirt. Throws whip through the air and pop into their intended destinations. Fluid double plays are turned with ease. With every crack of the bat, a fundamental fielding gem unfolds.
It's a beautiful defensive display to watch. So impressive, in fact, that a passing onlooker might mistake the team practicing as a group of high school players. The timing, the precision, the speed - it's all top-notch.
"That's way to throw the ball," one of the players squeaks in a high-pitched voice across the diamond. "Great play."
"Thanks, man," a soft voice chirps back.
The brilliance is coming from a group of pint-sized ballplayers that weigh less than 100 pounds. A few were issued a middle school locker for the first time this past school year. Others won't get one until August rolls around. The team is the 11-12-year-old Blacksburg All-Stars of the Blacksburg Baseball Association's Dixie League and their play is every bit all-star form.
Watch the kids rap balls off the fence at the Virginia Tech Softball Park and you'll be equally impressed with their sticks.
Starting Thursday, all-star teams from Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Montgomery County, Pulaski, Radford and Patrick County will compete in the Virginia Dixie Youth Baseball District Tournament at Veterans Fields in Radford. Winners of the two double-elimination tournaments (9-10 and 11-12 age divisions) advance to the state tournament in South Boston later this month. From there, one lucky winner from each age division will represent Virginia at the Dixie Youth World Series next month in Alabama.
Each all-star team is made up of 13 elite players selected from local Dixie leagues.
The older Blacksburg All-Stars are stocked with lethal arms and loaded with fence-clearing power. The team is also experienced when it comes to postseason play. Eight players on this year's club were members of Blacksburg's district championship team two year ago. The youngsters won the 9-10 age division tournament in dramatic fashion.
With one out, runners at the corners and the game tied in the top of the sixth (the final inning in Dixie baseball), Blacksburg pulled off quite a trick play. Following a called strike three on Blacksburg batter Adam Brauns, Ryan Wall took off from first. Half way to second, Wall intentionally fell down and "made the loudest noise you could," according to Blacksburg manager Ricky Sowers.
After receiving the ball from the catcher, Franklin County's pitcher instinctively charged Wall to tag him for the third out. Meanwhile, Michael Simonetti darted home unnoticed from third and crossed home plate before Wall was tagged. With no force out applying to Wall, the run counted.
Everything, from Brauns not swinging, to Walls screaming was scripted.
"I have to be honest, that was coach [John] Simonetti's idea there and the whole time we practiced it, I thought it would never work," Sowers said. "I have to give him credit."
Zach Wall, Ryan's older brother, shut down Franklin County in the bottom of the sixth and the celebration began.
"It was just awesome," said the 12-year-old Brauns, who plays left field.
"That was a blast," said 12-year-old Ricky Sowers, the manager's son, who pitches and plays second base. "We just celebrated all night at PK's."
Simonetti's sneak home was the game's winning run.
Blacksburg reached the state semifinals that year before losing to a powerful
Buckingham County squad. Last year, the team failed to make it out of the district while playing in the 11-12 age division for the first time.
This year's club is heavier, taller, stronger and wiser. Kids seem to have a habit of doing that.
"Oh, it's unreal," Sowers said of the growth and development of his team in two years.
In some ways, the athletes are new players.
"I'll be honest with you, back then a lot of the kids had baby fat on them," Sowers said. "Now they've sprouted up and slimmed down and our team speed has improved greatly."
So has their defense. Sowers says glove-work has been the team's biggest improvement.
Dixie league rules are tailored to keep kids safe and healthy. A pitcher can only pitch 13 innings in a tournament and must wait 36 hours to throw again after pitching four or more innings in one game. To pitch in consecutive games, a pitcher can pitch a maximum of two innings in the first game.
As a result, many teams find three aces to pitch two innings apiece each game. Blacksburg's trio is 12-year-old's Aaron Vest, Ricky Sowers and Justin Bishop. Vest, the team's top overall player, and Ricky Sowers both played two years ago. Bishop was added to the team last season.
Sowers believes Blacksburg's championship experience will be a big advantage this year.
The pressure is "the only thing I'm worried about," Sowers said. "I've told everybody that's the only thing that can beat us is ourselves with us getting down on ourselves and not handling the pressure."
The atmosphere and intensity at the district tournament games is a step up from regular season play.
"I'm really excited and a little nervous," Brauns said. "But it's going to be really neat to do it all over again hopefully win."
Blacksburg begins play at 11:30 a.m. Saturday against the Radford/Patrick County winner. Finals for both divisions are scheduled at 7 p.m. July 13. All games will be played at Veterans Fields.