ORRINGTON, Maine — Yard sale after yard sale lined both sides of Route 15 on Saturday, just another part of the community’s Old Home Week festivities.
But only slightly set off from that small-town celebration was a destination for the younger set, particularly those whose dreams involve baseball.
For the road to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, travels through Orrington this year for the top 11- and 12-year-old Little League baseball teams from around Maine.
Six district champions — Biddeford, Ellsworth, Houlton, Lewiston, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, and Scarborough — arrived Friday at the Orrington Little League complex located behind the Center Drive School for the weeklong state tournament.
The state winner advances to the New England championships in Bristol, Connecticut, with a chance to qualify for the U.S. and world championships in Williamsport at stake.
Games in the double-elimination state tournament began Saturday, with Medomak Valley facing defending champion Biddeford in the opener.
And local organizers, many of whom had worked for more than a year to prepare for Orrington’s debut as host of the state tournament for Little League’s signature age group, were ready.
“The community has really embraced this whole tournament,” said Omeika Legassie, tournament director and president of Orrington Little League. “They’re excited to see these kids play and see the best in the state and show off what Orrington has to offer because we’re really proud of our facilities here.
“We also have some great volunteers here in Orrington. I have a board of 15 that has stepped up and made this tournament what I hope will be a memorable experience for all these kids for years and years to come,” Legassie said.
Those volunteers were clad on opening day in fluorescent yellow T-shirts that bore the words “I Can Help” on the front, with many also assigned to one of the teams under the tournament’s “Aunts and Uncles” program.
“If the players or coaches or parents from the team we’re assigned to have any questions because they may not know the Bangor area, they can talk to us,” said Kelly Bay, vice president of Orrington Little League. “Whether it’s about the tournament or because they might be here for a few days and need to know where to go for a good pizza or where to go to catch a movie if the kids get bored during their free time, we can help.
“When you come here there are so many people they can ask, but if you have that one person or two people that you can contact throughout the week it will make it easier for them.”
The preparation process
Orrington Little League is part of Maine District 3, one of six Little League districts statewide.
Each district gets to host this state championship tournament on a rotation every six years, and Orrington was selected to host this year’s event by a vote of district members in spring 2015.
Since then, the preparation has been ongoing, but for local organizers it was a natural fit.
“Anyone who drives through Orrington can see the girls and boys playing pickup games; we love our baseball here and we love our softball,” Bay said.
“When you’re at the [district] meeting and they ask who would like to do it and then you raise your hand and you win it you’re like, ‘We’ve got it!’ and then it’s ‘Oh, my.’ But we have so many people who have stepped up, and when you have many hands it makes life much easier,” Bay said.
The volunteer board has been busy securing sponsorships and other donations to defray tournament costs, organizing various events such as a pre-tournament dinner, creating a tournament program, securing lodging options for the teams, coordinating with Maine District 3 umpire-in-chief Chris Parker and assistant Rob Curtis for umpiring coverage of the games, and myriad other details.
“It’s probably just what I expected it to be,” Legassie said, “a lot of work with a humongous payoff.”
Readying the field for the 10 or 11 games that will crown a state champion is another crucial part of the prep work, an effort led by field and facilities manager Nick Chiappone.
“Every year we work on different things,” Chiappone said. “Pretty much the whole infield has been redone since last year. This year I’ve been down here about every night putting my water sprinkler out just to keep it going.”
A new press box behind home plate also was constructed last year thanks to financial support from the local recreation department and in-kind contributions from local contractors.
“It’s a lot of volunteers,” Chiappone said. “You look through your program and everybody here does something to help, everybody’s got a good attitude and works well together, and it really makes the place operate.”
Chiappone’s goal for another year is to install an irrigation system at the field, but on Saturday he watched the ball take true hops on the plush, green infield grass with the smile of a satisfied groundskeeper.
“I wouldn’t want to go stand out in the middle of the field and say, ‘Hey, this is my work,’” he said. “But I spend a lot of hours here in the evening, after dark and with nobody else around, so when people show up in the morning and go, ‘Wow, what a nice facility!’ that’s what I get a kick out of.
“We’ve been hosting some good tournaments lately and when we get a lot of compliments about the facility it puts a lot of pride in you.”
All of the planning and preparation for the tournament wasn’t without a few last-minute twists.
Bay, who wrote and organized the tournament program, anxiously awaited the final team picture at midweek but had the final, glossy publication in hand by Friday afternoon.
Chiappone also was tasked with one last landscaping chore to eliminate a potential ground-rule controversy.
“You can see the birch tree in center field, there were some branches overhanging the [outfield] fence, and if a fly ball had hit them, then you’ve got an issue,” he said. “So the other night I was standing on a 12-foot ladder with a pole saw pruning the limbs off.”
When the teams got their first look at the field and began to sample the hospitality Friday, the reason for all their efforts began to set in on the volunteers.
“The teams were starting to arrive for equipment checks,” Legassie said, “and the kids had huge smiles on their faces and their bats in their hands.”
The tournament continues with two games daily through Tuesday, followed by rain date and rest day Wednesday and single games Thursday and Friday, with an if-necessary contest scheduled for Saturday.
Organizers hope the tournament will provide a fundraising boost for the league and its future endeavors.
“It will be a nice bonus if that’s the case,” Legassie said, “but the No. 1 priority of all of our board members when we first found out we were going to host this tournament was that it be a memorable experience for all these kids for years to come.”
It’s also likely to be a memorable experience for the hosts.
“It means a lot because we’re just a small town and usually it’s the bigger cities that get these,” Bay said. “We just want to show that small towns can do this, too, and that we’re pretty dedicated and can pull it off.
“It feels like a big event in a small town,” Bay said. “People are staying around the area but they’re coming to play ball in our sandlot, which is a pretty nice sandlot.”
On Saturday, Biddeford defeated Medomak Valley of Waldoboro 7-4 and Scarborough beat Lewiston 6-2.