By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BASTIAN, Va. —
Small school baseball is the focus of the Yo-Na Invitational.
That is the way it was meant to be.
The Yo-Na Invitational, which is sponsored by the Wolf Creek Indian Village and the Bland County Economic Development Authority, was started in 2010 to provide an outlet for small schools who might not have the opportunity to play in larger events, such as the Coppinger Invitational that has been held in Bluefield for many years.
The Yo-Na has been a hit.
“We are tickled to death with how it has gone,” Bland County baseball coach Norman Dillow said. “Fan attendance has been good, the teams have been wanting to show up and play so we are very happy with it.”
The Yo-Na will begin its fourth year on Saturday at Skip Dillow Memorial Field in Bastian, with four games, starting with Bland County and Craig County at 11 a.m.
That will be followed by Holston and Montcalm (2:30 p.m.), Northwood-Twin Valley (4 p.m.) and Graham and Rural Retreat (6:30 p.m.).
The admission price is $5.
“You can come and enjoy all the games for $5,” Dillow said. “We have an on-site concession stand so you can make a day of it. It is reasonably priced and a good family outing.”
The eight-team, 16-game tournament will continue every night except Friday — that is a rain day — through April 20, with four games on the final day, culminating with the championship game.
Three different teams have claimed the crown, including River View in 2012. Other champions have been Northwood (2011) and Narrows (2010), and Dillow sees no reason why this tournament won’t be just as unpredictable.
“Absolutely,” Dillow said. “I think that is something we will continue to see. There is more of a natural turnover with the littler schools.”
Three schools — River View, Narrows and Oak Hill Academy — decided not to join in the fun this year, and Dillow was able to replace them with Twin Valley, Craig County and newest gate attraction Graham.
“They always travel well when they play us during the regular season,” Dillow said. “We expect that they will travel well during the tournament...
“Coach (Matt) Dixon has done a good job at Graham. I look for them to be very competitive.”
Long a part of the Bluefield-based Coppinger Invitational, which will be held from April 19-27, Graham head coach Matt Dixon felt the need to drop out of the single-elimination Coppinger and take part in the Yo-Na, which offers the guarantee of four games through pool play.
“That tournament was so good for us,” Dixon said. “In Virginia you can only schedule 20 games and they guaranteed you four games, just show up and play baseball.”
With the Virginia High School League limiting its schools to just 20 games, including just one in-season tournament, Dixon felt it was a move needed to allow his young team to get on the field in a competitive manner.
“We thought that was a great deal. We have all the respect in the world for the Coppinger tournament,” Dixon said. “We love it and we hope to get invited back, but the single elimination and going over there (Yo-Na) and being guaranteed games...0
“With this 20-game limit in Virginia, it’s good for us and will give us a chance to compete over there.”
Weather has been an issue early in the season, but may have improved just in time. Bland County (2-1) played its first game of the season on March 19, and didn’t play again until April 9.
“Basically it has been like starting a second season this week,” Dillow said. “It has been nice this week and I hope it is going to continue. It looks nice for the tournament so that is good.”
The Yo-Na has been fortunate not to be hampered much by weather, but Dillow is confident the much-improved Bastian facility will be ready for use.
“We are very fortunate that our field holds up to the weather very well,” said Dillow, who credits a collection of volunteers for assisting with the facility that is named for Skip Dillow, who was a supporter of baseball in Bland County for more than 60 years.
“We have had two Saturdays where we have had to move games to get everything squared away, but for the most part our field holds up to the weather really good and we don’t have any issues with that.”
There are plenty of talented teams and players that will take part in the Yo-Na, with Dixon looking at Holston as a potential favorite for good reason. The Cavaliers lost by one run in the Division 1 state championship game last season.
“Holston has always had a strong program,” Dillow said. “They do a good job with those kids, they are always fundamentally sound and they do a good job.”
Dillow likes the potential of his own club, which will open Mountain Empire District play tonight against Narrows.
“I think we have got a good group of kids,” Dillow said. “We are playing decent baseball, but we haven’t played enough where we can really be 100 percent year, but I certainly think we have an opportunity to win it.”
Other teams to watch include Northwood, which returns solid pitching from last year’s Region C team, Rural Retreat, which lost to River View in the finals last season, and Jimmy Redmond-coached Montcalm, which is much-improved with a 4-3 record on the season.
“Coach Redmond has done a great job of building a program down there,” Dillow said. “They are very competitive, they know the game, they hustle all seven innings, they are not out of nothing. I have a lot of respect for what he has done down there.”
Then there is Twin Valley and Craig County, neither of which Dillow is all that familiar with, but he is pleased to have them in the field.
“Those two teams are basically what this tournament is for,” Dillow said. “You could never see a matchup between Craig County and Twin Valley in the regular season.
“This way you can bring in teams that you normally would not see and you can create some good matchups that you are probably never going to see again.”
The two four-team pools will play each other through the week, prior to next Saturday’s final four games. Dillow is excited about what lies ahead.
“This field makes it so anybody that comes out and has a good week could win it,” Dillow said. “In our first year Northwood came in struggling, but won three games in a row and finished up in second place.
“It should be very balanced. I am looking for a lot of competitive games.”
Another by-product of the Yo-Na is the influx of teams and fans who may otherwise never get the opportunity to visit such Bland County sites as the Wolf Creek Indian Village, which is a hidden gem in the area.
“The Economic Development Authority has been a supporter of this tournament since the beginning and they helped make it possible,” Dillow said. “We are very proud to showcase the county to the region.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
at Skip Dillow Memorial Field, Bastian
Saturday, April 13
Bland County vs. Craig County, 11 a.m.
Holston vs. Montcalm, 1:30 p.m.
Northwood vs. Twin Valley, 4 p.m.
Graham vs. Rural Retreat, 6:30 p.m.
Monday, April 15
Craig County vs. Northwood, 5 p.m.
Bland County vs. Twin Valley, 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, April 16
Graham vs. Holston, 5 p.m.
Montcalm vs. Rural Retreat, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 17
Craig County vs. Twin Valley, 5 p.m.
Bland County vs. Northwood, 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 18
Montcalm vs. Graham, 5 p.m.
Rural Retreat vs. Holston, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 20
Seventh place, 11 a.m.
Fifth place, 1:30 p.m.
Third place, 4 p.m.
Championship, 6:30 p.m.