The Palm Coast Little League hosted its first-ever Florida State Tournament starting Friday afternoon at the Indian Trails Sports Complex, the culmination of a years-long effort between Little League and the city to re-prioritize community leagues and give them more room to play. The dividend for Little League was landing the state championship, which ran through today–and getting Gov. Ron DeSantis, in his very first visit to Flagler as governor, to the first pitches. .
Excitement had coursed across fields and stands as the athletes, ages 10-12, waited in anticipation for the governor, and of course to play.
Families and athletes flooded the parking lot before the event, coming from all over the state. Little League teams from Tampa Bay, Merritt Island, Chaires, Fort Lauderdale, Martin County North, Dr. Phillips (an Orlando-based team), Northeast, and Sarasota came to Palm Coast to participate in the state tournament. The winners of the Florida state championship advance to regionals in Georgia, where they’ll have a chance to compete in the Little League Baseball World Series in Pennsylvania this August.
As teams gathered for pep talks, Governor Ron DeSantis entered the scene to give his own words of wisdom. Taking a trip down memory lane, DeSantis spoke to each team about his time in Little League and even promised the winners of Friday’s tournament an invitation to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. Back in 1990, DeSantis and his team made it all the way to the Little League Baseball World Series. Shortly after pictures and pep talks, the governor and his entourage handed out signed baseballs to the players and gave an ode to volunteerism.
“Without parents and volunteers from the community, saying this as Governor, I want to thank you for your kindness,” DeSantis said during the opening ceremonies. “Because I know I took it for granted. I just assumed parents had nothing better to do than doing everything for our league, but in fact you realize that as you get older, how much time, how much effort people are putting in. It’s all about giving these guys the ability to do some great things as 12 year olds.”
The governor then threw the first pitch. Two ceremonial pitches, actually: Softball players Emily Warren and Sadie Schnell, both age 14 and soon to be Matanzas High School students, were introduced as two of the “most celebrated athletes” that have ever gone through the Palm Coast Little league and had the honor of catching the governor’s pitches.
Matanzas High School Class of 2021 graduate Lauren Januszkiewicz sang the national anthem before the games began.
It didn’t matter tat Palm Coast’s teams didn’t qualify. For Palm Coast Little League, hosting the tournament is a remarkable turn-around from a time a decade ago when it was struggling against the city’s obduracy in running the Indian Trails Sports Complex as a venue privileging out-of-town tournaments and teams first rather than a nurturing ground for the city’s own. The city was in it for the money rather than the teams. There were tensions all the way down to the way the city was charging teams for light bills and park fees. That began to change as league leaders and volunteers made appearances before the city council and began lobbying for more respect–and more fields. A new council was in place in 2016, with former Mayor Milissa Holland, former Council members Bob Cuff, Heidi Shipley and Steven Nobile, and current Councilman Nick Klufas playing key roles–the relationship with Little League turned over too. By 2019, the new approach also meant the city would join with the county to accommodate Little League‘s and other teams’ need for fields. The changed climate did what Little League officials had told council members it could years back, when they were lobbying: it landed them the state championship.
It is one of Holland’s lesser-known legacies, though it’s also the reason she made her first public appearance at the opening ceremonies since resigning the mayorship in May: Little League officials had specifically invited her.
“I had the privilege to get to know the founders of the Palm Coast Little League while serving as Mayor,” Holland said. “This is a group of dedicated volunteers that have given significant time, energy and resources in order to grow a quality program that serves the younger demographic of our community. Each season brings thousands of families to this complex. The League itself had always had this vision to expand on opportunities around tournament play but needed the adequate amount of fields in order to successfully compete for them as well as continue to meet the growing demand for additional capacity of the kids that practice and play locally. We found a creative approach through staff suggestions that the Council ultimately embraced and approved. What happened Friday was nothing short of extraordinary. Watching the kids take the field with such pride and excitement knowing they will never forget this moment for the rest of their lives was overwhelming and heartwarming to watch. The coaches and the parents looked on with such pride that the energy was palpable and so positive.
“It was a great day and it served as a reminder of the best of Palm Coast,” Holland continued. “We are a community filled with incredible amenities but we are also filled with a community of incredible people who helped make this dream a reality and I am forever grateful to have played a small role in that.”
“It’s been a lot of work and a little stressful at times, but when we get to a day like this, and we see how excited everybody is, the kids, the smiles on their face. It doesn’t matter how many hours of work, it’s all worth it. Every last minute of it,” said Peter Schoembs, Palm Coast Little League President. He added that the PCLL could always use more volunteers and athletes of all ages. “Come join us at Palm Coast Little League, we offer a great program. We’ll take good care of your kids, I promise.”
“Peter worked hard to get everything straight and set up for this and we’ve been really excited and planning for it so it’s a big deal for Palm Coast,” said Alicia Schoembs, a league volunteer.
Chase Snelson, 12, came all the way from Sarasota with his team and shared the same excitement. With all the practice he and his team had done, Snelson had “high hopes.”
“We’re so excited to be here,” his mother, Stephanie Snelson, said. “They worked really hard to get here, lots of practicing, you know, we had a lot of rain delays in our districts that pushed districts back but we ended up coming down on top of that. Then the sectionals win got us here and we’re just excited to be here and hope that the summer keeps going and we win states so we keep going.”
Wyatt Cantella, 11, playing for the Chaires, a Leon County team, shared his feelings on playing at states. “Very excited, and a little nervous,” Cantella had a smile on his face that proved his emotion. “There’s some good teams here and I don’t really want to go home early,” he said. But no matter the outcome, Cantella still believes baseball is “a great experience and you have to stick it through.”
Unfortunately the Chairs lost all three of their games: Martin County North was the big winner, decisively winning all its games (11-6 against Fort Lauderdale, 13-3 against Sarasota, 6-3 against Northeast, and 4-1 against Merrit Island in the championship game.
“Congratulations to Martin County North and good luck at the regional championships and hopefully the Little League World Series!,” said Interim Palm Coast Fire Chief Kyle Berryhill, a long time member of the Little League organization. He serves on its board as the coaching coordinator and volunteers as a manager for teams of 7- and 8-year-old baseball players. He’s experienced Little League’s odyssey over the years firsthand.”I love Palm Coast Little League for the sense of community and the amazing experience for families,” Berryhill said today. “It was really special this weekend to see the partnership between PCLL and the city on full display as we celebrated the state tournament and 20 years of Little League baseball in Palm Coast. Having the governor–who was a Florida Little League State Champion 30 years ago–was icing on the cake. ”
Since the governor was around–he’d also stopped at Knuckle Sandwich Sub in Bunnell before making it to the Sports Complex–the inevitable swarm of politicos were not far, waiting their chance for a picture with the governor. But even the governor’s office had made clear that DeSantis’s appearance in Palm Coast was to be a low-key stop, no press conferences, no major speeches: just some attention to the tournament.
“The work of the board to get this facility done and in condition to host the state tournament took so much work you can’t even imagine. And with Pete and everybody else that was a part of making that happen, I mean it’s just untold heroes. It was amazing what it took to get it done,” said Simon Katz, one of the coaches of Palm Coast Little League. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Katz as a board member. His wife is a board member.)
While the event couldn’t have happened without the league volunteers, the athletes couldn’t have played ball on well kept fields without the help of the city’s parks and recreation department. Having a state championship like this is a great opportunity for Palm Coast’s growth and brings awareness to the great parks the city has to offer.
“What it takes is having a good team out here to get the things done that we need to get done and it also helps to have a budget for it,” said Dennis Redickan Jr., the athletics and field maintenance supervisor of the parks and recreation department. “But I have a really good strong team out here and to drag the fields and mow the grass and fertilize the turf to get these fields ready, it takes a lot of heart and soul to get it done. I’ve been with the city for 14 years and this has been the goal since day one. So this is a great, great moment for the city and myself.”
–Terra White for FlaglerLive