NEW CARLISLE — A sophomore at New Prairie High School when he first decided to throw a little wiffle ball tournament together as part of New Carlisle's new Hometown Days festival, Koby Keck had no inkling it would become the huge event that it is 14 years later.
"I always tell people it's ridiculous, then to see it, it's even more ridiculous," Keck said of The Wiffle Ball Championship. "It was 16 teams the first year. We got up to 80 teams two years ago. We have 160 pool play games. We use 20 fields. There are teams now in college who have been playing since they were 9. They don't know anything else but this. This is where we're going to be in July. It's the biggest weekend of the summer."
In 2006, the Keck family built Migley Field (Mini Wrigley Field, as once coined by Garrett Curless, Keck's long-time New Carlisle Newts teammate) on their property a short distance from the Little League complex and Olive Elementary School. The scaled model of the Cubs home, right down to the ivy and scoreboard, was immediately established as the site of the tourney's Final Four as the field whittles down on the network of nearby fields from pool play on the first day to 48-team bracket play the next day.
"My senior year, people were like, why don't we just start a league?" Keck said of the Old Republic Wiffle Ball League. "Way back when, it was one weekend in Mishawaka, you'd come in, play wiffle ball, go home, forget about it, then come back next year. I think we changed the game at some point with the league. We'd always get new teams for the tournament and they'd say, oh, we want to play all the time. The tournament just kept growing. It's just a great community event, a big fund raiser for the festival. It brings people to the town."
Keck ran the league for nine years, but the expansion of The Wiffle Ball Championship and the Newts' playing schedule made it so hectic that he passed off ORWBL operations in 2015. In the early years, it overlapped with the World Wiffle Ball Championship in Mishawaka, which dated back to 1980, but when it started playing on separate weekends in 2010, the New Carlisle tourney took off. The field immediately jumped to 40 and has doubled since.
"Now that one's the weekend right before us," Keck said. "It's in the southwest (Chicago) suburbs, so it's a little competition, but not much. It's frustrating for us. We play in it, so I'm like, when am I going to set up my tournament? Several have popped up the last five, six years. There's just so much going on with Wiffle Ball."
The Wiffle Ball Championship's reach is extensive, both in age and geography. Players range in age roughly from 8 to 60. Teams have come all the way from Saskatchewan in western Canada, driving 25 hours in a mobile home, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan. Keck expects a pair of teams to come down from Minnesota for the July 26-28 weekend. He has arrangements with Visit South Bend for any teams that want to stay in a hotel.
"We get a big group from Chicago," he said. "One year, we had four, five teams here for a bachelor party. There are dads with their kids, couples. We get a lot of family teams. The Little Little League complex runs up against the park where the festival is. It's a whole weekend thing. There's a bounce house 15 feet off the right-field line. It really becomes like Wrigley Field, where you can't find a place to park. People get there early and put up their tents along the outfield. You can hear the roar through the woods Saturday morning. It's like Augusta (for the Masters)."
Besides the modest entry fee -- $40 until June 29, then $80 -- some of the tourney's broad appeal is attributable to the hitter-friendly set-up. It is overhand, slow pitch with no strike zone, so while there is a craftiness to pitching with knuckleballs and curveballs, batters can say if the ball is being thrown too fast.
"It's supposed to be fun. It's not just walks and strikeouts," Keck said. "You get high-scoring games and low-scoring games."
Teams are comprised of four players with a pitcher, catcher and two outfielders. They have the option of using a fifth hitter. Curless and Shane Anderson are the only two players to participate in every tournament, which Keck believes to be the largest of its kind. The Newts won last year's title, topping the Granger Panthers 13-10 to garner the Hometown Cup traveling trophy, started in 2010 to commemorate New Carlisle's 175th anniversary.
"We hadn't won one since the field really expanded," Keck said.
The Newts' three championships are second to the Cult West Warriors, who have won four. Each winner's banner is hung on the fence at the field. Broadcastsports.net added to the prestige of the event last season by airing the finals on the web and Keck has a few secret surprises in store for this summer.
Starting in 2015, Hometown Days began awarding a Most Valuable Player trophy to the top performer of the Hometown Cup Finals. Beginning with the 2016 championship, it was renamed the Kaylor Keck Marquee Player Award in memory of Koby's late brother, a former Newts teammate who was instrumental in the evolution of the tourney and Migley Field.
Registration closes July 13 or once 80 teams have entered, with the field then anxiously awaiting for the release of the pairings. Action kicks off July 26 with a home run derby open to anyone for $5. An inaugural official shirt, featuring a 90's look to match the theme of this year's championship, will also be available.
"The difference with the other tournaments, once you get to the championship, everybody else is gone," Keck said. "Here, when you're not playing, you watch games. The Final Four, there are 200, 300 people. The hill is completely filled in, the bleachers. People are out on their decks. We always have a DJ or some sort of music. It's really cool to see."
For details or to register, visit www.hometowncup.com