E.A. Sports Today

On the big stage

Oxford O-Zone not sitting back just waiting on the World Series to get here, they’re working to find competitive edge

Carter Johnson delivers a pitch in the first inning of the Oxford O-Zone All-Stars’ game against the Douglasville Blue Jays Saturday at Choccolocco Park. On the cover, the team’s coaches go over strategy between innings.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD – There is good and bad that comes with being the host team for the Dixie Youth O-Zone World Series that’s coming to Choccolocco Park in August.

The real good is Oxford’s spot in the 12-team field is guaranteed, so the team doesn’t have to go through the qualifying grind that determines the other state champions. The bad is the Jackets aren’t required to play any preliminary games in the run-up to the Series, but while that would make them among the freshest teams in the field it wouldn’t do anything for their sharpness as a team.

To that end, the Oxford O-Zoners will be playing in “three or four” travel-team tournaments like this weekend’s Playmakers Tournament at Choccolocco Park in addition to getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity provided by Major League Baseball.

“We’re trying to keep it interesting for them,” manager Rusty Gann said. “It’s a long summer. We can’t just practice every day, we’ve got to kind of break up the monotony and game experience is one of the best ways to improve. Every team were going to face is a state champion; the odds are stacked against us from the get go, so we’ve got to get better and at least compete.

“We’re going to take advantage of these tournaments. If we get three tournaments in that will probably be close to the number of games we would have played had we started and worked our way all the way to the World Series. We might be a little short, but I also think we’ll have an advantage of not being worn out. We didn’t have to play 20 games to get here.”

The journey started Saturday. With only three practices together behind them, the local lads took it on the chin twice although they did see the offense start coming around in their second game.

They lost to an Auburn Colt 45s team managed by former Braves pitcher Tim Hudson 12-0 and to the Douglasville (Ga.) Blue Jays 10-4. They scored all four of their runs in the third inning against the Blue Jays, delivering four straight hits at the top of the lineup with Carter Johnson, Blake Clark and Caleb Thomas (two-run double) driving runs home.

“I think we’re a solid defensive team, but we’ve just got to jell offensively,” Gann said. “We’re still trying to figure out the batting lineup, who complements who better. I think we made great strides in the second game, in learning as well as improving.”

They’ll take a big step on the learning curve later this summer when they participate in the MLB-sponsored Youth All-Star Classic at Marlins Park.

Oxford was invited after MLB reached out to Dixie Youth Baseball headquarters to solicit its participation and Oxford was offered as the World Series hosts. Team officials knew of the opportunity prior to the start of their regular league play, but decided to let the season play out and tell the players once the all-star team was selected.

“I was really shocked,” Clark said. “I just thought to myself how many people get to do this? And then I thought how many people would love to go do that and you get to do it at 12 years old.”

The July event brings in eight baseball and four softball teams from various youth baseball associations across the country for instruction, informal competition and the opportunity to do something every day to make themselves a better baseball player.

“If nothing else it’s the opportunity to play games there,” Gann said. “That’s more team building, we get to travel together, just building that team bond going into the World Series. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’re excited, but at the same time they’ve got no clue what they’re about to get to do. It may take 10 years before they realize, oh my gosh, we really get to do that.”

The trip is expenses-paid for the players and coaches, but throughout the summer the team will be engaged in various fundraising activities in help defray expenses of the parents accompanying the boys on the trip.

There’s more on the line than a World Series title when the teams come back to Choccolocco Park. The winner gets an expenses-paid berth in the third annual Youth Baseball Network (YBN) National Championship in Branson, Mo., Aug. 15-19.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Clark said. “How many people live in this state and get to do that; not very many. If you get to go do that you need to play your butt off and do everything you can so you can play in that level of competition.”

Oxford O-Zone All-Stars: Justin Bowen, Blake Clark, Talon Edwards, Peyton Harris, Tide Gann, Carter Johnson, Ashton Mitchell (replaces injured Logan Ford), Jake Moyer, Rylan Owens, Alex Petty, Caleb Thomas, Nick Thompson. Coaches: Rusty Gann, Jason Johnson, Greg Clark.

At Choccolocco Park
First-round games
August 5

South Carolina vs. Oxford, 3:30 p.m. (Field 3)
Tennessee vs. Arkansas, 3:30 p.m. (Field 4)
Georgia vs. Mississippi, 5:45 p.m. (Field 3)
Texas vs. North Carolina, 5:45 p.m. (Field 4)
Alabama vs. Florida, 8 p.m. (Field 3)
Louisiana vs. Virginia, 8 p.m. (Field 4)
Championship Game
Aug. 10, 11 a.m. (Field 3), (7:30 p.m., if necessary)

At Choccolocco Park
First-round games
August 5

Georgia vs. Louisiana, 3:30 p.m. (SB 1)
North Carolina vs. Oxford, 3:30 p.m. (SB 2)
Mississippi vs. Texas, 5:45 p.m. (SB 1)
Alabama vs. Tennessee, 5:45 p.m. (SB 2)
Arkansas vs. Virginia, 8 p.m. (SB 1)
Florida vs. South Carolina, 8 p.m. (SB 2)
Championship Game
Aug. 10, 12:30 p.m. (SB 1) (8 p.m., if necessary)

At Choccolocco Park
First-round games
August 5

North Carolina vs. Alabama, 3:30 p.m. (Field 1)
Oxford vs. Florida, 3:30 p.m. (Field 2)
Louisiana vs. South Carolina, 5:45 p.m. (Field 1)
Virginia vs. Arkansas, 5:45 p.m. (Field 2)
Texas vs. Tennessee, 8 p.m. (Field 1)
Mississippi vs. Georgia, 8 p.m. (Field 2)
Championship Game
Aug. 10, 10 a.m. (Field 1) (5:30 p.m., if necessary)

Dixie Youth State Tournaments
Alabama – O-Zone, July 13, Andalusia; Majors, July 13, Troy; AAA, July 13, Troy.
Arkansas – O-Zone, July 21, Texarkana; Majors, July 21, Texarkana; AAA, July 14, Ashdown.
Florida – O-Zone, July 15, Marianna; Majors, July 8, East Lakeland; AAA, July 15, Marianna.
Georgia – O-Zone, July 14, Perry; Majors, July 14, Crawford County; AAA, July 7, Putnam County.
Louisiana – O-Zone, July 21, Monroe; Majors, July 21, Alexandria; AAA, July 21, Alexandria.
Mississippi – O-Zone, July 14, Mendenhall; Majors, July 14, Mendenhall; AAA, July 14, Columbia.
North Carolina – O-Zone, July 15, Eden; Majors, July 15, Leland; AAA, July 8, Dunn.
South Carolina – O-Zone, July 14, Hartsville; Majors, July 7, Conway; AAA, July 14, Hartsville.
Tennessee – O-Zone, July 13, Sweetwater; AAA, July 13, Loretto.
Texas – O-Zone, July 21, Longview; Majors, July 8, Center; AAA, July 21, Longview.
Virginia – O-Zone, July 14, Brookneal; Majors, July 14, Lunenburg; AAA, July 21, Appomattox.

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