PUNXSUTAWNEY — Anyone who's been down to the Punxsutawney baseball complex this summer has certainly noticed some big changes at Rich Kuntz Memorial Field, which has long hosted the PAHS baseball team and the VFW leagues in Punxsutawney, beginning with the new dugouts and concession stand/pressbox. And with the improvements coming along nicely — yet far from reaching the status of finished project — Punxsy will have the opportunity to host a pair of tournaments over the next week including an eight-team Western Regional tournament July 28 through Aug. 1.
Last year, the Punxsy Legion hosted the 13- and 14-year-old state tournament — a tournament Punxsy won as the host — but this time around, there will be a few new features on display.
"Since December, when we last ran an article, we've completed the upper tower, equipped the inside of the concession stand, and we are about 75-percent done with equipping the bathrooms and getting them up and running," tournament organizer and frequent volunteer on the project Joe DiPietro said. "There are a lot of little things — a new fryer, a new grill and a new freezer."
Doug Mesoraco — who has directed the Legion baseball program for 20 years — added that one feature for which the parents and fans have expressed appreciation is the 180-degree open-window concession stand. "The volunteers really like that," he said. "Being able to watch from the concession stand, they can work and watch their kids play at the same time."
Since December, the project has come a long way, with the completion of "Devin's Deck," an observation tower attached to the press box, windows and doors installed by Burke & Sons, and completion of the roof.
"Smith Hauling sent down a crane to help us put up the second-floor roof and to set on the tower roof," DiPietro said. "They've done that at no cost to the organization. The community's just been great in helping out from that aspect, and the volunteers — both within our organization and from outside it — have been great."
The first tournament — a 15- and 16-year-old playoff tournament — started Friday with a pair of games. Phillipsburg, Curwensville, Clearfield and Punxsy are playing in the double-elimination tournament, which will wrap up this weekend. Then, next weekend, teams from the western half of the state will come together for the Western Region Youth Legion Tournament, which will see eight teams from five counties: Westmoreland, Erie, Armstrong, Somerset and Indiana. Punxsy's I-Medical team will also be in the tournament as the host — although it played its way in through the Indiana County League championships.
"Last year, we hosted the 13- and 14-year-old state tournament," Mesoraco said. "We hadn't hosted that in 20 years. This weekend, instead of playing a round-robin tournament, we wanted to bring the four Indiana County League teams together for a double-elimination tournament and have everyone play at the same location. Next weekend, the big tournament will have tons of baseball action. There'll be games at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, then three games Monday and two Tuesday. So, there'll be plenty of baseball action taking place."
Mesoraco also noted the possibility of a Wednesday third-place game to determine the third team that will advance to take on the five eastern representatives.
Mesoraco said the point of this tournament, and others like it, is to give the kids an opportunity to play good competition at a good field.
"It's always good competition, and the Legion takes care of the expenses and puts the kids up," he said. "It's a good experience. Naturally, we've experienced going on the road and losing two straight. There's a lot to be said for home field advantage."
Mesoraco also noted that this year's tournament wasn't given to Punxsutawney because of the recent field renovations, but he did say it might help bring teams back in the future for similar tournaments.
"This tournament site was determined four years ago because our area is centralized in the western part of the state," he said. "Indiana, Homer City and we have hosted it. Everyone's familiar with our facilities, but I think the improvements will encourage them to come back and put us on the list to be reconsidered. If we want to, we can put in for another tournament a few years ahead. For us, it's about keeping the kids close to home and giving them an opportunity to play more games."
Mesoraco also noted the field improvements made an impression on the teams and officials who visited Punxsutawney this year for high school baseball PIAA playoff games.
"We hosted two PIAA playoff games, which is something this facility has enabled us to do, not only because it's a nice facility, but because it's a good field, has plenty of parking and such," he said.
DiPietro added that he heard positive feedback from the officials who were here for those games.
"They made several comments about being impressed by the facility and being willing to recommend it for future games," he said.
With baseball season winding down, the volunteers are gearing up to get back to work, and while the project has come a long way, Mesoraco pointed out a number of things that they're looking forward to getting back into.
"We've had a ton of volunteer labor from within our organization," he said. "We'll continue to work in the future on a cement siding when the season is over, a retaining wall along the backstop — which we'll follow by putting up a Kevlar netting with four poles to improve sight lines. Then, we'll put patio blocks and sidewalks made out of bricks to bring it to full completion. We're looking to do that over the next year.
"We've come a long way in a year and three months, and once our volunteers are done helping with baseball season, they're eager to help out and will have some more time. We're still a bit short on money at the time, but it was never expected that we'd finish everything in one year, anyway. We'll be beating bushes for anyone who's a baseball enthusiast and wants to help out."
Ultimately, Mesoraco said, the group's goal for the field is to make a "one-stop shop" for fans, players and organizers to host and play tournaments without the worry of pulling all the pieces together.
"There's plenty of parking down here, bathrooms on site and telephone lines for the radio stations to hook up to if necessary," he said. "It's kind of a one-stop shop, where they can just come and enjoy the baseball game. Things we're thinking about as a group in the future include not only Junior Legion and Big Legion tournaments, but we're also looking at things like providing and supporting our own AAABA team that'll play in either Johnstown or Altoona. Also, we attempted to put a team in the Federation League this year, but it was just a bit too late to pull all the pieces together. Our ideal plan is to have double-headers down here seven nights a week. We don't want to step on anyone's toes — like Rossiter with the Miners — but we think there are plenty of kids coming through that we can keep this facility utilized to the max."