Last year's First Ward Falcon Club Fastpitch Tournament brought in some of the best talent in the world, and this year is shaping up to be more of the same.
Although reigning champion Chicago/New York has disbanded since winning the 36th rendition of what has become a staple of summertime in Dunkirk, most of its players have found a spot on the New York Gremlins, based out of Clifton Park.
That group includes Andrew Kirkpatrick, the towering lefty from Down Under, who tore through the competition last year, allowing one run during his team's run to the title.
Former Dunkirk Marauder baseball player Bryant Watts will look to lead M & M?Cleaners/Blasdell Pizza in the 37th First Ward Falcon Club Fastpitch Tournament, which begins Friday, July 20, at 5:45 p.m., at Promenschenkel Stadium.
"It's a classic, summertime event," Longtime player Sean Raynor said. "It's an original event. It's something we look forward to every year."
Kirkpatrick, who is one of the top pitchers in the world, may find his way back to the area this coming weekend, and if last year was any indication, people will be out in numbers at the local softball diamonds to see some of the top players the World has to offer.
"I actually got goose bumps when Andrew Kirkpatrick was warming up and people were just swarming to the backstop to watch him throw," Tournament Director Tim Wdowiasz said. "That was the biggest crowd we've had in 20 years. There were easily a 1,000 people here on Sunday and Friday night there had to be at least 600-700 people."
"Even as a player, watching that next level of talent was nice to see," Dunkirk Fastpitch team member Matt Wisniewski said. "And it was nice to see in the City of Dunkirk."
The Gremlins, the top-ranked team in the International Softball Congress poll will not be coming, but a lot of their players will join up with members of Erie Budweiser, a perennial contender in their own right.
"It's great softball and it will be a fun time for the family," Wdowiasz said. "There will be food and beverages, a band Friday night during the games and there will be a lot of local talent playing against some of the top players in the world."
Joining the Erie Budweiser Gremlins will be the Pennsylvania Power, the No. 5 team in the ISC poll, as well as the NY Bombers, the ISC's No. 33 team, and last year's runner up.
The Power, who will reportedly bring in a fire-balling New Zealander - although none is listed on their official ISC World Tournament roster - will surely be in the thick of things, as they will have to take on teams from Dunkirk, Lackawanna, and Canada.
"Talking to players north of the border, Dunkirk has been the talk of teams coming down here in the future. We lost several other teams this year due to passport issues."
Dunkirk will boast four teams in the field of 12, with Dunkirk Fastpitch, Rookies On the Lake, Lakeside Club/Rookies On the Lake and M & M Cleaners/Blasdell Pizza all set to take to the local diamonds.
The M & M Cleaners/Blasdell Pizza squad may present the host city's best chance of competing with the All-World talent that will be coming to town, as it will feature former Dunkirk High School standouts, Bryant Watts and Adam Kubasik.
Watts was an All-Western New York performer on the baseball diamond during his senior season in 2008, before moving onto Jamestown Community College and Washington Adventist University, an NCAA Division II program located in Takoma Park, MD.
"I've played down the whole East Coast and I've played great competition through baseball," Watts said. "But this softball tournament we host every third week in July takes it to another level. Some of the top players in the world come to play."
Despite his team being relatively young compared to their in-town counterparts on Dunkirk Fastpitch, Watts thinks his team will have a chance to be competitive.
"Obviously I like to compete," Watts said. "So I think we have a shot. I'm confident and I know the players on my team are as well. The pitching is a lot tougher and that's what our team lacks, but I like our chances."
And for those of you out there wondering whether or not you should take up the sport of fastpitch softball, Watts has some advice.
"If you enjoy baseball like I do and love to compete, then why not play?" Watts said. "It's a great atmosphere and at tournaments like this one, you get to play some of top talent in the world."
As for the Old Guard, one player, Casey Snyder, will likely be playing in his final tournament, as years of competitive ball and tossing batting practice to his players at John F. Kennedy High School, in Cheektowaga, where he is the head coach of the varsity baseball team, have taken its toll on his right shoulder.
"It was fun in 2005," Snyder noted of the only year a team from Dunkirk won the tournament. "Catching (Tom) Berube was awesome. The most fun for me was when Dopey (Wdowiasz) said to me, 'Case, these guys just want to play, will you play on my B team?' And I said yeah, and then we beat the A team. I went 9 for 16 in that tournament. I was destroying the ball. We went 3-1 and then beat those guys on Sunday morning."
Whether or not a Dunkirk team will ever win the tournament again is something that will remain to be seen, but Snyder knows there is one thing players in the area can do to help their chances.
"I keep saying that we need to go up to Lackawanna and play a double-header once a week and play in that league and you're going to see our success in tournaments go way up," Snyder said. "Berube is a No. 3 pitcher on one of their teams. If you see the guy from New Zealand, who is throwing 89 miles per hour, if you see him three times a year, instead of once in a tournament, you're going to get better.
"There was five years straight that I just crushed the ball here," Snyder said. "But it's because I also played in Lackawanna. So I played four nights a week, and I played 70 games over the summer when I mixed tournaments in, so of course you're going to be better."
Games will begin Friday night, but Wdowiasz noted that preparations began months in advance.
"It is definitely a 12-month ordeal," Wdowiasz. "Teams will start contacting me in December, but the hardest part is getting the entry fees sent in. My team does help out, the clubs help out and all of our sponsors are a big help."
For the past several years, the number of teams in the field has hovered right around 12, and that is a number Wdowiasz is happy to work with.
"Twelve is a very acceptable amount," he said of the number of teams in the tournament. "I'd like to get to 15 or 16."
"Getting the Canadian teams down here is a little bit tougher now," Wisniewski added. "They play a lot of tournaments up there."
The tournament isn't just about the softball however, as Wdowiasz has made an effort to make the event family friendly, adding live music and bounce houses to go along with the yearly chicken barbecue, Tony's Waffles and other refreshments. However, what may make the tournament most appealing to the teams coming in is the location.
"It's easy to get to the fields and everything is right here," Wdowiasz said. "The hotels are within a couple of miles, unlike playing out of town, where some times we stay 8, 10 or 12 miles out of town. Some teams actually call it 'Funkirk'"
"Not only do they enjoy the tournament," Wisniewski said. "They enjoy the City of Dunkirk itself."
The first game of the 37th tournament will be at 5:45 p.m., on Friday, with Dunkirk Fastpitch squaring off against Watts' M & M Cleaners/Blasdell Pizza.
"Bryant Watts' team is the future of travel teams from Dunkirk," Wdowiasz said. "They have a lot of talent. We had talent when we were young and they have the talent now. They have a pitcher, that if he learned how to pitch with a change up, could be very, very good."
The first game, which will be broadcast on WDOE 1410, will be followed by a game between Rookies On the Lake and Niagara Fury at 7, and Lackawanna's Big John's vs. Woodstock, ON, at 9. Games will continue all day Saturday, with the top eight teams advancing to play on Sunday. Games will be played at Promeschenkel Stadium, School No. 7, Koch's Field and Veteran's Field.