Sunbelt Classic more than just baseball

Posted 6/17/17

McAlester, Oklahoma is home to the Junior Sunbelt Classic every June.

 

Junior Sunbelt Classic more than just baseball

By Tim Morse

MCALESTER, Oklahoma -- When Tater Goodson showed up a half hour late for the Team Georgia pool party, the rest of his teammates wanted to know where the Benedictine School catcher had been.
"I went to Kamden's baseball game," Goodson said, dressed in a pair of black shorts with a burgundy T-shirt and tennis shoes.
Goodson was talking about 13-year old Kamden Hutchison, the son of Ryan and Linda Hutchison, who happens to be the host family for Goodson and Cross Creek High School standout David Hollie. Kamden Hutchison was playing in a tournament baseball game of his own.
Before Goodson and Hollie arrived to play in the 23rd annual Junior Sunbelt Baseball Classic in 2017, neither had met the Hutchison family.
The Sunbelt Classic features some of the top junior players in the country. Each state selects its own players, and the team plays as many as 10 games in a six-day span and crowns a champion. Team Georgia has won the most with six titles.
In 2017, the tournament held its games in McAlester at Mike Deak Field, as well as sites in nearby Atoka, Oklahoma.
While coaches of their respective teams normally stay in hotels, host families in McAlester play host to the players for the week. They provide housing, meals and most of the time, shuttle the players to the games as well as wash uniforms.
The economic impact is significant and is perhaps the biggest event of the year for the town of a little more than 18,000 that is also the home of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, which essentially makes all the bombs used by the United States Military.
But baseball in the month of June here is big business and host families provide a big part of the week-long experience for the players.


Building friendships

Goodson and Hollie became instant friends with the Hutchison's two boys -- Nathan and Kamden. The four often played catch in the backyard, went bowling and just hung out.
When Team Georgia's bus departed home, the Hutchison boys had a tough time saying good-bye to their new friends.
Host families host anywhere between two and three players from the same team each year. They can request to host up to four players.
Linda Hutchison began hosting players from Team Georgia in 2015.
"I used to umpire and a host family who doesn't host anymore asked me if I wanted to host," she said. "I told them that we didn't have a big house, but the former host family said it didn't matter. The players just needed a place to sleep and a place to eat. So I went home and talked to (my husband) Ryan and here we are."
In 2016, the Hutchison's hosted former Locust Grove High School standouts Ethan Lindow and Joah Curry. When Lindow was selected in the 2017 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, Linda Hutchison may have been more excited than Lindow, sending out a series of congratulatory messages via Facebook.
Leanne Plaxico also began hosting in 2015. For her and her husband Justin, she said it's something they look forward to every year.
"I always say every year can't beat the year before," said Plaxico, who hosted Hunter Foster, Will Wilbanks and Trent Grantham in 2017.
"The guys are usually really quiet when they first get here but by the second day, they're hanging our with the kids and doing all kinds of stuff."
Plaxico still follows players her family has hosted. Former Gainesville High School standout Anthony Carrera stayed with the Plaxico's in 2015 and he signed with Tennessee Tech after high school.
She said she received a video on Facebook of Carrera's first college home run at Tennessee Tech, and she said she rushed home from dinner one night to watch him play Florida in a college baseball game scheduled to air on ESPN.


Keeping them busy

For Don and Pam Pulchny, they hosted players for the first time in 2015. They own property on Lake Eufaula, a few miles outside of McAlester. And for Chaz Bertolani, Hunter Goodwin and Gavin Patel, the country life was just fine with them.
After playing a pair of early games, the Pulchny's and their son plan to take Bertolani, Goodwin and Patel noodling.
According to Wikipedia, noodling is the process in which people fish for large catfish in shallow riverbeds and waterways by using their hand and arm. They insert their entire arm into the catfish's mouth to catch it, thus startling the fish and that causes it to thrash about wildly.
On this day, they burned about 30 minutes and pulled out two large catfish from the lake.
Don said the week was rewarding.
"When they first talked me into hosting, they said I would enjoy it," he said. "I told them I didn't know a whole lot about baseball. But I had some great boys and we had a great time."
After baseball games, other players do different things with their host families. Wilbanks said he fished about every day.
Adam Frazier of the Pittsburgh Pirates played for Team Georgia in 2009. He said some of his teammates talked about riding four-wheelers and going hog hunting.
While players such as Jack Haney were thrilled with the college exposure they received while playing in the tournament, he said he couldn't put a price on the experience.
"It was absolutely amazing," Haney said. "It didn't matter if I played or sat the bench, it was a great experience. All the kids that played and the host family was absolutely amazing. I don't know of any other experience like this."


Keeping tabs

While McAlester and the surrounding cities benefit economically, the host families and players form life-long friendships and bonds.
“Without a doubt, the economic impact is quite substantial for McAlester and the nearby communities,” former McAlester Dugout Club Secretary Debra Wood told the McAlester News-Capital. “This is a great event for the city of McAlester.”
Frazier said when he made his debut with the Pirates in 2016, one of his first congratulatory texts was from his Oklahoma host family.
Hutchison said her heart melted when Goodson wanted to forego the pool party to watch Kamden play baseball.
"He was cheering on Kamden just like it was his little brother," she said. "That was really cool."
The experience is something no Team Georgia player will ever forget.

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Top left: A sign welcomes visitor's to McAlester, Oklahoma; Top middle: A sign hangs on a wall in

downtown McAlester, Oklahoma; Top right: Hunter Goodwin, Gavin Patel and Chaz Bertolani pose

with two catfish after noodling; Middle left: Team Georgia players pose for a photo at the bowling

alley; Middle right: Team Georgia players hang out at Ryan and Linda Hutchison's home; Bottom

left: Rhett Daniel and Jared Soliz pose with host family Phillip and Mary Buris in 2017; Bottom

right: Jack Haney is congratulated by third base coach Tony Kirkland after hitting a home run

against Oklahoma Blue in 2017.