Quartet of Hilton Head All-Star baseball teams look to make history

The sport of baseball is, in its purest form, a kids’ game. There’s something magical about watching the next generation create memories on a ball field. And four Hilton Head Island squads are ready to have the time of their lives this summer and compete for a state title.

For the first time since 2010, all four Hilton Head Baseball Association All-Star teams captured the district title and are headed to the state level. An accomplishment like this is no easy task, especially in a Lowcountry community filled with outstanding athletes. 

It’s a program with a rich history and a long track record of dominance. In both 1999 and 2000, Hilton Head brought home a coveted Dixie Youth World Series championship. Last year, the island’s Ozone (12U) squad won the South Carolina state tournament to advance to the World Series level. And there’s a great chance we could see some more island teams headed that way this summer. 

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Building a winning program all starts with a fantastic director alongside dedicated and driven coaches who will work hard to see their team succeed. Hiram Rodriguez has been at the forefront of a season to remember on the island. The HHBA director also serves as the head coach of the 14U Dixie Boys team that conquered the district tourney in Moncks Corner. Now, he has his eyes set on claiming another title right here in the Lowcountry. 

Bluffton’s Oscar Frazier Park is the site of this year’s tournament, and Rodriguez’s squad is off to a red-hot start, opening with a 9-5 win over Andrews on Saturday and blasting the Beaufort County All-Stars 15-0 on Sunday to move into a key matchup Monday night. 

Rodrigeuz’s assistant coach knows very well about the grind and dedication that it takes to succeed in a sport that demands everything on every pitch. After a successful 14-year professional career that brought him all the way to the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves, Ryan Kelly came back to where his baseball dreams all began. A former Dixie Youth baseball player on Hilton Head back in his hometown, Kelly is now inspiring the next generation to pursue its goals on and off the diamond.

“It holds a special place in my heart because I’m from here,” Kelly said. “I played at HHBA since I was six years old and I’m trying to give back to the community with these boys. That’s obviously the goal to play baseball beyond here, and we’re trying to give them the opportunity if that’s what they’re trying to do.” 

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The Dixie Boys are just one of four squads repping the Lowco this month and aiming for a state title. Defending state champ Hilton Head Ozone took care of business over in Beaufort, vanquishing its district competition for the right to advance to Union on July 16. The 8U coach pitch squad put on a hitting clinic at Oscar Frazier and continued rolling Saturday at the state tournament in Anderson, clobbering their first two opponents by a combined 29-5 score. And the 10U minors squad polished off the clean sweep in style on its home field at Crossings Park, outscoring opponents by an astounding margin of 84-4. Rob Hummel’s group will look to keep the good vibes going on July 16 in Dillon and punch its ticket to August’s World Series in Lumberton, N.C. If the 14U Dixie Boys get the job done in Bluffton, they’ll travel to Sterlington, La., later in July. 

The friendships that these young men will make throughout this journey will never be forgotten, and these kids know how important it is to enjoy the moment. From the playful chatter in the dugouts and at warmups to sharing snacks after the games, the friendships made will be the defining memory of this baseball journey. 

“We’ve played together since we were 8 years old,” Dixie Boys player Calvin Middleton said. “Bridging it all together and going to Moncks Corner and playing as a team means a lot to not just me but to our whole team. Always like wearing the jerseys because it’s where I’m from, and it’s where I’ve lived my whole life. This opportunity that we have is so great, and we’re so thankful.”

And of course, these kids want to win. All four teams have shown that they have the talent to do so, and it will come down to strong pitching and execution on defense, as it always seems to at the youth level. The biggest advice from the coaches? It’s simple: play loose and have fun. 

“I preach to these boys all the time: If you’re not having fun, you don’t deserve to be out here,” Kelly said. “Stay disciplined, but at the same time enjoy yourselves out there. And if you watch these boys play, you’ll see that on the field.” 

By Wes Kerr

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