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The fields at Gillette Baseball Complex are quiet now, having earned a well-deserved break after a busy 10th year of operation.
In addition to the 13th season of play for Wilson City Little League, the facility hosted 111 postseason games over 28 days in June and July. Gillette was the site of North Carolina Little League District 6 tournaments in five age divisions as well as three NCLL state tournaments.
After he got a chance to catch his breath, Wilson Parks and Recreation Department athletics coordinator Troy Blaser, who functions as Wilson City Little League commissioner, pronounced the latest flurry of Little League baseball at Gillette as another success story for the WCLL and the complex.
“I think it went great for that many games in those many days and so many different teams involved,” said Blaser, coming off his second year as WCLL commissioner.
That was the plan envisioned by David Lee and Braxton Patterson in 2006 when they put together the first WCLL season. Lee, the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department director, and Patterson, now WPRD programs and marketing supervisor and first WCLL commissioner, initiated the long-term plan that included the construction of Gillette Baseball Complex and turning Wilson into a Little League hub.
Obviously having a pristine facility such as Gillette, with Southern Bank Stadium as the crown jewel, goes a long way toward attracting postseason tournaments, but the WCLL has done it the right way all along. The league has a consistent presence on Facebook and Twitter, from the Jimmie R. Grimsley Highway 264 Challenge — the preseason showdown with Greenville Little League — through the last state tournament game, all of which are accessible online through iScore.com. Lee proudly noted that two U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan were among those following a game involving a Fayetteville team in a district tournament at Gillette.
If there were any complaints, they might have been over the $5 parking fee that WCLL charged for district or state tournament games. Because Little League rules forbid charging admission, it was a way to recoup some of the expenses of baseballs, umpire fees and other operating costs at Gillette. But whatever gripes some visitors may have had were far outweighed by the positive reactions that were delivered in person and on social media.
“From June 22 to July 19 our city had out-of-town guests here playing baseball, staying in Wilson and enjoying Wilson,” said Lee. “We received many compliments and emails expressing their appreciation for the hard work the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department and Wilson City Little League to make the experience the best it could be, but even more impressive, were the compliments and stories of how the Wilson community welcomed them in and showed them such great hospitality. Everybody should be proud of that. I can promise you it’s not like that everywhere.”
Lee should know. The Greenville native grew up playing in that city’s Little League, which is actually two leagues — North State and Tar Heel. Patterson, a Southern Nash High graduate, worked for Greenville Recreation and Parks under Lee’s father, the legendary Boyd Lee, the longtime director there.
Both David Lee and Patterson knew that Little League baseball could flourish in Wilson, just as it has in Greenville.
They were right.
Wilson City Little League won its sixth state championship this summer with the WCLL Ages 8-9 team, which was comprised of most of the players from the N.C. Little League Ages 7-8 championship team last year. With two district titles this summer, Wilson has now 30 such crowns to its credit.
Wilson came close to winning a second state title last month, needing just a win to capture the Ages 9-11 tournament, which was also played at Gillette, before Greenville Tar Heel stormed back to take the title.
But the success of Wilson at the district and state level is undeniable.
“We’re right up there with the top teams,” Blaser said. “We were a few runs away from a state championship with the 11s. They’ll be right up there next year and I’m sure we’ll see Greenville again and that should be fun.”
“It just thrills me to see our Wilson kids compete with confidence on all levels of baseball now,” Lee said. “We’ve gotten to a point that other communities know they are in for a battle when they play any kind of Wilson team whether it’s Little League, high school or American Legion. I’m most proud that Wilson City Little League and Gillette have become such a huge part of the community the last 10 years or so. The support from the community leaders, volunteers, businesses and parents has been tremendous.”
Patterson pointed out that having consistent sponsorship and leadership has been vital to the success of Wilson City Little League.
“It started with folks at Farris & Farris, Thomas Law Attorneys, BB&T, EB Sports and many others, along with folks like Robert Stokely and several others who have stuck with the league and saw what it could and has become,” he said.
Stokely, the former baseball coach and athletic director at Greenfield School, became involved right away when his oldest son, Robbie, was playing more than a decade ago. He was the first and still only president of WCLL.
“One of the best moves we’ve made was having Stokely around here,” Lee said. “He loves getting on the field with a bunch of young players and teaching baseball and he knows how important it is.”
Stokely probably couldn’t leave if he wanted to.
“Every year we have an election and every year he wins!” Lee said with a chuckle.
Stokely, in turn, praised the commitment from Wilson to creating a top-notch Little League program.
“The city’s commitment to the league is second to none,” Stokely said. “The city council, tourism board, the recreation commission, numerous sponsors and coaches have spent countless hours working together for the purpose of improving Little League baseball. We started at Toisnot Midget Field with no bathrooms and very dark night games and now, we have a state-of-the-art facility that draws praises from every league in the state. Some of our players have developed into college and professional players while other contribute to their high school teams.”
Lee pointed out that there were around 500 players participating in the Wilson City Little League this spring and summer and there have been around 250 playing in its fall league, which runs from September to early November.
That commitment has been evident as Little Leaguers matriculate to high schools.
“Players are more prepared for high levels of competition and I expect that evidence to become clearer as more and more players move into the high school ranks,” Hunt High head coach Jon Smith said. “It has taken a strategic plan along with volunteer coaches and some experienced and knowledgeable leaders to make Wilson’s Little League a standard in our state.”
Smith’s counterpart at Fike High, Buck Edmundson, agreed.
“I mean it’s a wonderful game and it’s awesome to see the youth in our community compete and excel the way we have,” Edmundson said. “I know it’s a direct correlation with all the hard work and efforts by David and his staff to try and get us better each and every year. From my standpoint as a high school coach in this town, I am still in awe over the facilities out at Gillette.”
So we should expect more of same from Wilson City Little League, especially when it comes to hosting district and state tournaments. Blaser said he hopes to land more of those in 2019, especially the state tournaments since the district tourneys are a given to be played here.
“We’ll meet as a district this winter or first of the year. All the teams in our district pretty much say, ‘Wilson, you got it,’” he said.
Indeed, Wilson’s got it when it comes to Little League baseball.