Guy Vilt remembers sitting in meetings for Florida's District 26 Little League wondering whether the district's All-Star tournaments would ever come back to Palmetto. Some years the tournaments were in Lakewood Ranch, or Bradenton, or Braden River -- it seemed as if District 26's smallest league would never have another chance to host.
And then, on May 27, 2014, it suddenly changed. Palmetto Little League had new fields at Blackstone Park, and a year later it's hosting the 2015 Florida District 26 All-Star Tournaments.
"Honestly, a lot of us didn't know that we'd ever see it," said Vilt, the District 26 assistant district administrator and umpire in chief. "They did a lot of work with county, the politics, the land. I was actually putting a map together with my umpires to show them where to park and everything. I did a Google Map. They squeezed those fields in pretty tight."
Monday night in Palmetto was spent stocking concessions, cleaning the bleachers, wiping off picnic tables and power washing the concession stand to get Blackstone ready for its biggest event since opening. Palmetto Little League has jumped from 160 players in 2014 to 232 this year, and Tuesday will be the first chance
for many across Manatee County to see the new facilities. The park hosted Suncoast Travelball tournaments this spring with open concessions to raise money for the Little League, but this will be the largest event yet for locals.
For the next two weeks, Blackstone Park will be the center of Manatee County youth baseball. Play will begin Tuesday with the 9-10 tournament playing its first two games at 7 p.m. on fields one and three while the intermediate bracket kicks off at 7 on field two.
This will be the first time Palmetto Little League has hosted the All-Star Tournament since District 26 started 10 years ago.
"There's a lot of people in the county that haven't been to the park," Palmetto Little League president Derek Goforth said. "We just want to make a great impression on them and stop being looked at as the redheaded stepchild."
This year is especially meaningful in District 26. It's the 10-year anniversary of the district breaking away from Sarasota's District 16 and for the first time it will send an umpire to the Little League World Series.
Vilt has umpired Little League games for 20 years as a volunteer and recently found out he'd be making the trip to Williamsport, Pa., for the LLWS to officiate the majors division, which is the highest level and the one featured on ESPN. District 26 only has two teams competing in this division -- Lakewood Ranch and Buffalo Creek -- although Vilt said he's been impressed with both when he's seen them play.
The three-game majors-division series begins Monday.
"Hopefully we can get one of those teams up in Williamsport with me in August," Vilt said.
The junior division also only includes two teams this year, Braden River and Manatee West, and that three-game series also begins Monday. The intermediate division, which begins this week, includes three teams, Palmetto, Braden River and Manatee West.
The largest division, though, is the 9-10, which includes six teams and has a double-elimination bracket that will be played across the next two weeks. Palmetto opens up against Braden River and Lakewood Ranch faces Buffalo Creek on Tuesday to begin the tournament. Manatee American and Manatee National will both play their first games on Thursday against Monday's winners. The championship round will begin July 2.
And then a hectic year for Palmetto Little League will end, at least at Blackstone Park. It just hopes it can make a positive impression.
"Once we get past All-Stars we'll actually get our quiet time," Goforth said. "This is the culmination of the last year with the opening of the new park and the increased enrollment in our league."
David B. Wilson, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow him on Twitter @DBWilson2.