Leland’s Dixie Youth Baseball Heads to the World Series
When Leland’s Dixie Youth Baseball League 8 and under All Stars won the state championship this summer, they got the rare chance to travel to the World Series in Mississippi.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Lindsey A. Miller & contributed
Baseball means a lot to this town: the smell of the grassy fields, the nights under lights, the camaraderie, the drama of a single hit. So it was no surprise that the community rallied to support some of Leland’s finest 8 & under ballplayers as they traveled to Laurel, Miss., to play in the Dixie Youth Baseball World Series.
The path to the World Series required hard work, hours on the field and talent. This year’s team was filled with All Star players from the Leland Dixie Youth Baseball League.
Dixie Youth Baseball has been in Leland since 1976 and celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. Through the years it has grown and today there are approximately 350 children ages 5 to 12 who play in the league. There is a lot of pride in the program, and countless volunteers and parents put in hours at the fields to give boys the opportunity to learn the timeless sport.
“The league has been an excellent service to our youth for many years,” says Adam Watson, manager and scheduling officer. “Also, we have been one of the most successful programs in N.C. We have compiled six state championships since 1988.”
Dixie Youth Baseball is a national baseball organization, along the lines of the better-known Little League, but specifically intended for more rural areas. The organization’s bylaws, rules and requirements, while somewhat confusing to navigate, ensure that kids in non-urban areas have access to fair and equitable play. Kids tryout for the “minors” or they can play machine-pitch. Everyone is welcome and everything is equal on the diamond.
In May, at the end of spring recreation play, coaches in the league vote for their All Star players and teams are formed for post-season tournaments.
Jeremy Skipper, a Duke Energy employee and dad of two, was named the coach for the 2016 All Star 8U Team and was excited to have the opportunity. Skipper played Dixie Youth Baseball as a kid himself. He started on the ball fields at the age of 4, and when he was 12 he moved up to Dixie Boys Baseball. At the age of 15 he started playing for North Brunswick High School as catcher.
Skipper has such a passion for youth baseball that during the winter he put together, independently from any league, a local travel team. Pulling together kids he knew loved to play, the first travel baseball team in Leland began practicing in November of last year and toured the area playing in competitive tournaments.
Nearly all of the kids on Skipper’s travel team were from Leland (the one exception was a family friend’s son who lives in Riegelwood and ended up on the All Star team there at the end of regular season play). And the Leland players all played in the Dixie Youth Baseball League in the spring. It turns out that their intensive practice during the off-season helped them stand out on the field. In the end, five players from the travel league were voted their teams’ All Stars and coincidentally placed together on the Leland Dixie Youth Baseball’s 8U All Star team.
So things were different this year than in the past. When it came time to start practicing as a new team, many of the boys had already spent time together.
With a clear love of the sport and a son on the team, Skipper was ready to coach the All Stars to the best level of play possible. Of course, it helped that his team was filled with boys who were all talented and dedicated baseball players.
With the help of coaching assistants Joey Fowler, Mike Evans and Daryl Trexler, along with former coach Tom Peterson, the team came together in a magical way.
Skipper’s coaching goal was to focus on defense; he wanted his kids to know what to do with the ball every single time it came to them. During practices, he ran them through scenarios, encouraging them to think quickly and take the whole field into account.
Truthfully, the team was planning to win the District Championship and practiced like it. In 2015, the Leland Dixie Youth 8U All Star team had been to Districts but lost at State. Skipper knew the hunger was there to go back and see if they could get further.
After they won the District title during the games in Southport this year, they quickly got back on the fields and set their sights on State. The practice paid off, and in an exciting round of games the Leland Dixie Youth All Star team won the State Championship in Tabor City.
“Winning the state championship was very exciting,” Skipper says. “I played from the time I was 4 through 12, then 13 and 14, I never once won a state championship. When I was playing with Dixie I made it to the state championship twice and lost both times. So I had never won a state tournament. I felt then like we had succeeded, like we had accomplished what we came to accomplish. Those boys got
to win a state tournament. That’s a pretty big deal, that doesn’t happen all the time.”
Dixie Youth Baseball sends two teams to the World Series from the state: one to the coach-pitch series and the other to the machine-pitch series. As State Champions, the Leland team had their choice. Together with their families, the kids and coaches traveled to Mississippi to play in the coach-pitch Dixie Youth World Series.
“Leland Dixie Youth paid for everything for the kids and coaches to go to the state tournament and the World Series,” Skipper says. “They paid for everything: the transportation, the food, the lodging. It was what made it possible. Going to Mississippi was an unexpected week 700 miles from home. Leland Dixie Youth Baseball was so supportive of us.”
The level of play at the World Series was remarkable. The Leland team fought hard and won their pool play but were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Alabama. But the team wasn’t disappointed. After all, they had a top six finish in the World Series.
While the countless nights on the fields paid off in terms of the boys’ winning record, it meant even more than anyone anticipated. These families, through the hours spent at District and State tournaments and the World Series, developed friendships that are precious.
“I texted everybody at the end [of the World Series],” says Alek Skipper, Jeremy’s wife, “and I said, ‘Guys, we have made it seven days. We have slept together, we have eaten together, we have washed each other’s clothes, we have yelled at each other’s kids, we have yelled at each other, and we are all still friends! Who I feel closer to than my own family at this point.’ As a mom, I know I can call on these parents if I need anything, even outside of the ballfield. We’ve all remained very close.”