The 10-year-old Mountain Home Force baseball team is boldly going where few from Mountain Home have gone before. And, it will be playing in familiar territory.
By virtue of being state champion from the state hosting the 2015 Cal Ripken 10-year-old World Series, the Force is an automatic qualifier for the tournament, held Aug. 8-15 in Jonesboro.
In just the past five years, Mountain Home sent a 12-year-old team to the Cal Ripken World Series in 2010, a 10-year-old team in 2012 and another 12-year-old group in 2013.
“Since Jonesboro is in our state tournament, and we won it, we get the automatic qualifying bid, being the North Arkansas state champions,” Force coach Curt Drewry said. “There will be 10 teams total, eight regional winners.”
One drawback of being automatically qualified is the Force was not allowed to participate in the Southwest Regional Tournament, held last week in Columbus, Texas.
“In the past they’ve let them,” Drewry said. “Even if we had been in the finals, we would be knocking a team out having a chance of playing in it. Our runner-up at state, Blytheville, went down and competed at the regional.”
Tri County, Texas, won the Southwest Regional and will join Mountain Home and Jonesboro in the 10-team field.
“It gave us a sigh of relief,” said team member Jacob Czanstkowski, son of coach Tom Czanstkowski, “because a lot of the teams at regionals are a lot tougher and more competitive. And, we don’t have to travel all the way to Texas.”
The Force will arrive Aug. 6 for orientation, and opening ceremonies are on Aug. 7. The tournament consists of two five-team pools, with the top three teams in each pool advancing to bracket play.
“Just play hard and have fun,” team member Brady Barnett said of the Force’s tournament outlook. “We don’t have to fly or anything, so that makes it really good. And, we’re not far away, so we can come back any time we want.”
Each team has four pool games guaranteed and will play one game each day with one day off. Mountain Home’s rest day happens to be the final day of pool play, which is beneficial for its pitching.
“Tom has done a great job as far as working with our pitchers in the winter and early spring, getting a lot of reps,” Drewry said. “It’s paid off for us playing USSSA ball, putting multiple players on the mound.”
Mountain Home plays the Southeast Region winner in its first game, scheduled for 3 p.m. Aug. 8.
“We play a USSSA season that starts in March, and we play through June,” Tom Czanstkowski said, “then we flip over to Cal Ripken when the league season is over, and that basically starts June 15. In three years, I believe, we’ve only had one Cal Ripken team beat us.”
Playing all of its games in a park with which it is very familiar is an advantage for the Force.
“We’ve played there before, and we know the fields,” said catcher Cody Lance.
Drewry said the team has played a lot in Jonesboro over the past three years.
“The boys are used to the field, so there’s not a big ‘wow’ factor of going into a new park,” he said. “We know the ins and outs.”
Czanstkowski believes the experience will help the team over its next five years of Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth play.
“We knew the World Series was in Jonesboro a year ago,” Czanstkowski said, “so we’ve been doing everything we can to focus on this year to win state and get the automatic bid. Another plus is the experience our kids will get. They’re only 10, so we have four or five more years ahead of us. It will help us for regionals and maybe World Series down the road.”
The Force features 11 players — Dillon Drewry, Caleb McGowan, Landon Luna, Jacob Czanstkowski, Isaac House, Landon Mattox, Brady Barnett, Masen Walker, Conner Glasgow, Reece Ducker and Cody Lance — and the team is coached by Drewry, Czanstkowski and Aaron Ducker.
“We’ve worked hard for all of them to play multiple positions, depending on who’s pitching,” Drewry said. “Tom handles the pitching, as far as who’s starting, who’s coming into the game. We’ve been fortunate to have two lefties.”
Mattox and House are the team’s two left-handed pitchers.
“A lot of teams, you might just get one lefty,” Drewry said. “(Right-hander) Conner Glasgow has done a lot more pitching than some of the rest. Most of the time, he’s our day-one guy we go to and depend on. The other three we rely on are Masen Walker — who a lot of the time comes in the game to close out for us — Landon Luna and Dillon Drewry. They kind of bridge the gap for us between the others and Masen.”
Czanstkowski said eight or nine of the 11 players can take the mound at any time.
“It’s a big deal, because pitching and defense win a lot of ball games,” he said. “We throw a lot of strikes. We have a pitching staff that will rival any team in this tournament.”
There is also the familiarity of playing alongside each other.
“All 11 kids have been together since March,” said Drewry.
“Ten of them have been together since they were seven,” Czanstkowski added.
Drewry said the Force offense has a fortunate balance of speed and power.
“A lot of teams have one or the other, or try to hit the ball all over the place,” he said. “We utilize our speed and play small ball a lot, try to advance runners. That’s paid off for us this year. We can bunt the ball real well, but we can also hit for power.”
While the trip won’t be quite as far or expensive as flying to Aberdeen, Md. — home of the 12-year-old Cal Ripken World Series — up to nine days of lodging and food will still be rather costly.
“The World Series will fly the coaches and players in from across the country, but all the families pay their own way. We have seven or more nights of hotels and food, also,” Czanstkowski said. “Our league, Mountain Home Youth Baseball, any team that goes to regionals or a World Series, they help support, because the all-star teams are from the league. We’ve just finished up two Yeti cooler raffles.”
The team will be holding a fundraiser on Monday at Buffalo Wild Wings.
“On (Monday) if you bring the Buffalo Wild Wings ticket on your phone, through their Facebook account, or by hand, they’re donating 10 percent of the whole day’s proceeds to our team. Various other local businesses and people have donated as well and we’re very thankful.”