The Parks and Recreation Commission in Blount County was abuzz Monday morning when its assistant director, Chris Clark, walked in for work.
Clark said that’s because the same thought was on everybody’s mind.
“It’s Classic week,” he said.
It’s a phrase he heard repeated around the office all day.
“Everyone is starting to get excited,” he added. “This is the center of our summer.”
The event to which Clark is referring is the 51st annual Smoky Mountain Classic at Maryville’s Sandy Springs Park. Regarded as the premier softball tournament in the country, the four-day event kicks off tonight and feature the top-ranked teams in the United States as well as a handful of local squads.
Blount County players such as Cory Williams relish the opportunity to play among the best. He’s a member of ECSO — one of four teams representing Maryville in the tournament.
“You’re a local team, and these are the best softball players in the country,” Williams said. “They’ll tell you, too, this is one of the (tournaments) they look forward to because of the atmosphere.”
In addition to ECSO, local teams slated to compete in the tournament are DMB, Prodigy and Windy City Grille/Synergy. The event will begin with today’s Home Run Derby, with local participants competing at 5:30 p.m. and the main event starting at 7 p.m. Games will begin at 10 a.m. on Friday and 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Clark has been helping to organize the tournament the last 23 years. He said the event always draws a healthy crowd.
“What makes it a big deal here is our fans love slow pitch softball,” Clark said. “They love watching these guys come in every year and seeing the best of the best. We truly have some of the best fans in America, and the teams will tell you that.”
Twenty-nine of 38 Conference USSSA teams will compete. The top seeds are TDB of Charlotte, North Carolina, Resmondo of Winter Haven, Florida, and Dan Smith of San Jose, California. Resmondo won the tournament last year for a record 12th title.
Josh Wade of Windy City Grille said he and his teammates look up to many of the athletes on those teams, particularly legendary players such as TDB’s Andy Purcell and Ryan Harvey. Purcell is a three-time Smoky MVP while Harvey won it in 2017.
“Those are some of the best players out there,” Wade said. “We know we’re not quite at their level, but they’ve always been good sports about it.”
In the two play-in games, Prodigy will face a team out of Chattanooga — Athletic Shop — at 10 a.m. Friday, and DMB and Windy City Grille will faceoff afterward at 11 a.m. Winner of the first game will take on Resmondo. The second will face TDB.
ECSO will play Dan Smith at 8 p.m. Friday in the first round.
“We’re probably not going to win the whole thing,” Wade said. “But for us to get out and compete and win a game and try to upset the big guys is what we play for.”
Expectations for such fortune are tempered among the local teams. Unlimited homeruns allow for high-scoring affairs and often lopsided scores. For instance, Resmondo defeated ESCO 21-6 in the first round last year.
Still, Williams said he’s excited to be a part of the opening night festivities.
“Friday nights are the best nights,” Williams said. “I think it’s just tradition in East Tennessee. When there is something they really enjoy, especially in Blount County, the town kind of takes it as its own and makes it what it is. It’s the fans that do it.”
Many of those spectators have turned into long-time participants in the tournament. A Maryville native, Chris Franklin of DMB is among them. He has competed in roughly 15 Classics and said over half of his teammates have played in at least one.
Franklin was introduced to the event as a kid when his dad started bringing him to watch.
“Everyone lines the fences and checks out all the big-time players,” Franklin said. “When you get to play against them, it’s not scary or nothing. You just feel good about getting to step on the field with them.”
While DMB features longtime tournament regulars on its roster, Prodigy is mostly new to the scene. Eight players on the squad are between the ages of 21-23. Cole Carruthers is among them.
Carruthers said only a handful of his teammates have played in the Classic. It will be his first time.
“As soon as I informed them that we were in the tournament, they were ecstatic,” Carruthers said. “We’re really thankful for it, and we hope to represent Blount County in a positive way and give the fans something to come out and see.”