PORTLAND — As evening settled on the freshly soaked sod along Back Cove Monday night, groups of school-aged children played soccer in Payson Park while a smattering of dog-walkers stopped briefly to take in the action.
But, on a nondescript piece of grass, just beyond the illumination of the field lights and cheering parents, another group of athletes got in one last practice before the big game.
One by one, 20-somethings wearing bright red shirts stepped up to the plate to face the sidewinder delivery of pitcher Kerry Robillard.
When a batter popped to shallow left field, a runner on third base failed to tag up and head for home. The group stopped to analyze the play.
“You’ve got to score on that play,” shouted the first baseman.
“That can’t happen in Vegas,” said another.
But this isn’t a group of baseball players preparing for the Fall Classic. It’s a team of devoted co-ed kickball players preparing for the World Championships in Las Vegas this week.
The Portland All Stars Only are the first kickball team from Maine to participate in the world championships, now in its 12th year. The team will be one of 72 competing in the Founders Cup World Kickball Championship Tournament on Oct. 10 at Desert Breeze Park in Las Vegas.
Since their formation about a year and a half ago, the team has gone 42-0 and is now ranked No. 1 in the nation, according to Courtney Silvagney of the World Adult Kickball Association.
But still, team member Sarah Nelson said the group is unproved on the national circuit and an underdog heading into Saturday’s contest.
“I think our team is very confident that we are going to be dominant, but we really don’t know what we’re up against,” said Nelson, who has been scouting pre-tournament predictions through online forums. “We’re sort of an underdog right now. We’re really confident, but no one really seems to think too highly of us.”
Just as in other parts of the nation, kickball is gaining in popularity in greater Portland. Hundreds of people play locally on 24 of teams in two divisions, with skill and intensity levels ranging from those competing for national prominence to those whose goal is talking trash at a bar after each game.
The Portland All Stars Only have a cleat firmly in each camp.
Many of the players are young professionals who use kickball as a way to network. Teams also raise money for charities. The All Stars Only raised more than $1,300 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation last weekend.
The team includes some of the best local kickballers, cherry-picked specifically to win the crown in Las Vegas.
The intensity of this group and the style of play is a far cry from the school-yard kickball games most people may remember – the ones where “no spinnies” are allowed. Here the ball can be thrown overhand and bounce, spin and dance its way to the batter.
“Kickball is great, because it’s a little bit goofy. The balls are really big and it bounces around a lot. It’s really unpredictable,” the 25-year-old Nelson said. “We’re all past our athletic prime – we never have a chance at being semi-pro at anything. So we decided to get together a team with the goal of going to Vegas and we’ve been winning games ever since.”
So, now that the team is close to achieving that goal, will the team members, who will be in Las Vegas for a week, be able to stay focused on their task?
“It’s like a week-long party with some kickball in between,” Nelson said.
Sarah Nelson prepares to boot a pitch from Kerry Robillard at Portland All Stars Only kickball practice Monday evening at Payson Park in Portland. The team will compete this weekend in the national championships in Las Vegas.