By ERIC BENAC
News Sports Writer
It's time again to get out and cheer on your favorite Alpena youth softball teams as the 16U, 14U and 12U teams compete against some of the toughest teams in the state in the fourth annual Thunderstruck Tournament.
The Thunderstruck tournament starts today at 4 p.m. in six different locations: the junior varsity softball field, the varsity softball field; Reynolds and Sobeck Fields; the Alpena County Fairgrounds; and Henderson Park at McCrae Park.
Play will continue throughout this afternoon and through Saturday and Sunday. The championship games take place on Sunday.
The Thunderstruck Tournament began when enterprising youth softball coaches wanted to add some challenge to their teams schedule by bringing in some of the toughest teams of the state.
It was also a chance to showcase the beauty of Alpena to a wider range of people.
"The mission of every tournament is to bring people to Alpena and get them interested in visiting the town. And, obviously, there's a trophy involved," coach Greg Gehrke said. "It also gives our kids a chance to rest by playing at home, instead of traveling all over the state."
A total of 34 teams will compete in this year's event, which is eight teams higher than last year. The tournament was able to expand due to the use of two more fields.
"The fairgrounds field has just been remodeled and revamped and we're really excited about the chance to play there. The Babe Ruth League was kind enough to let us use Henderson field, giving us the chance to pull even more teams and people our way," Gehrke said.
All teams play at least three games in Friday and Saturday pool play. Teams will then be seeded into bracket play on Sunday.
Sunday bracket play will help filter out the top two teams in each age group. These two teams will then get the chance to play in the championship.
The 16U championship game starts at 4 p.m. Sunday at the varsity softball field. The 14U championship game is Sunday at 4 p.m. at Sobeck Field with the12U championship beginning at 3 p.m. at the fairgrounds.
Alpena works hard to bring in a wide variety of teams every year, including several local teams. The Tawas Waves will be appearing again at all age levels as is the Great Lakes Heat, out of Rogers City.
Other local teams include the Petoskey Blaze and several Traverse City teams.
However, high-quality downstate teams, such as the Jackson Travelers, the Birmingham Jag and the Genesee County Gatorcats should create the potential for a highly competitive tournament with exciting games at all levels.
"Generally speaking, we have pretty good competition and real competitive games. Rarely do we have blowouts," Gehrke said. "Alpena's always finished pretty fair in the tournament. Every team has won at least once. In fact, the 16U team has won the last two years while the 14U won last year."
Eric Benac can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.