CRYSTAL LAKE – Pitching is something 15-year-old Jack Schneider is quite familiar with, but when he took the mound in the bottom of the first inning for the 15-and-under Lake In The Hills Thunder baseball team Thursday, he did something he never had done before.
Schneider pitched against a national team from Japan that, along with many other teams, has traveled to Crystal Lake for the 21st McHenry County Youth Sports Association Summer International Championships at Lippold Park.
“It was a little intimidating at first,” Schneider said. “But once I threw that first pitch, I got it under control. It’s very different, [the Japanese players] are all very intense yet positive. I don’t think I saw any of them stop smiling.
“It’s one of those experiences that you know you will never forget.”
Wednesday marked the first day of the event as teams from Japan, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Puerto Rico and Lithuania each arrived and met their host families. Thursday marked the first set of “friendship games,” which don’t count in the tournament standings but provide a way for the teams to meet one another and have a chance to play on the same field.
Host teams such as the Illinois Stix, Crystal Lake Babe Ruth, Crystal Lake Cyclones and the Lake In The Hills Thunder each played against Brazil and Japan in five-inning games.
Skills competitions Friday will include a home run derby, strongest arm competition, base running and an infield skills contest before the tournament begins Saturday, which will include an opening ceremony featuring a scholarship presentation, fireworks and a Hall of Fame induction.
“It is one of the most unique tournaments of its kind,” executive tournament director Jack Sebesta said. “This event, both scope and size, has a bigger draw of teams than the Little League World Series. It’s one of the best events out there and it’s in our backyard in Crystal Lake.”
In 1993, Jim Aldridge brought the tournament to Illinois from Iowa when it was about to be eliminated. He first pitched the idea to the town of Woodstock, but eventually settled in Crystal Lake, where the tournament was approved and now has been a fixture of talented summer baseball ever since.
Last year, two players from Brazil were signed by the Seattle Mariners after a scout spent the week watching players while several others from various teams signed future contracts. They now are in professional development leagues as 16-year-olds.
Brazil coach Fabio Takara spoke briefly after his team’s friendship game Thursday against CL Babe Ruth and noted that the tournament is special.
“It’s something that gives us exposure,” Takara said. “It’s good for the kids to be able to play at [this level] and on a stage like this. It’s something we all await each year.”
As for the local players and coaches, having an opportunity to play in an international baseball game has many rewards.
“It’s just a blast for me and for the kids,” said Phil Seegers, a coach for the CL Cyclones. “To say you played against kids from all over the world is really something.”
Added CL Babe Ruth catcher Buddy Gabric: “A lot of those teams are better than us, but it’s so much fun. You just go out there and soak it in.”