HOUGHTON - For just about any U.P. athlete, the words 'state tournament' are associated with hours upon hours in a vehicle, Mackinac Bridge fares and freeway exits.
This week, two local teams have the rare luxury of high stakes and comparatively low mileage.
The Portage Lake Little League Major All-Stars will be playing for a state title within their home district, as the 16-team tournament begins today in Ishpeming.
"The thing is, especially after driving to Ironwood seven nights in a row, it would have been really hard to jump in the car and like last year, drive 10 hours to Schoolcraft to play baseball," PL manager John Bostwick said.
Portage Lake earned its berth the hard way, losing early to host Penokee Range to fall into the elimination bracket, then fighting its way back to the top by winning two championship games against Ishpeming last Thursday and Friday.
"We faced some adversity...when the second night of the tournament, you lose, the kids know, we've got to come back the next five nights. They kept their heads up every game," Bostwick said.
Unlike the double-elimination districts, the states have a pool play/single elimination format. Portage Lake is guaranteed three games: today vs. Edwardsburg (minutes from the Indiana border), Saturday vs. Midland Northeast and Sunday vs. Ira Township (near Port Huron).
The top two teams in each pool will qualify for the single-elimination quarterfinals, which begin Monday and culminate in a single championship game Wednesday morning.
Portage Lake has had a lot of success in Little League baseball recently, advancing out of the district in all four age groups from age 9 to 16.
Kevin Bostwick and Alex Nordstrom make their last bid for Williamsport having been on four district champs in a row.
"They've seen baseball at a high level and they have responded. They've led the rest of the kids, which has been nice," coach Bostwick said.
Though power has come from unexpected sources, such as Sam Keskimaki, who homered three times in the district tournament, this team relies much more on strategy than some of its predecessors.
"We play pretty sound defense and we play a lot of small ball," coach Bostwick said. "I've had kids in this tournament bunt with two strikes on them because I know I have confidence they can get it down."
On the shores of Lake Michigan, the Keweenaw Little League's Senior (age 15-16) softball team will go for the state title in a five-team showdown at Lemerand Park in Escanaba.
Each team will face each other team, with Keweenaw opening play Saturday at 1 p.m. against the District 2 (Kalamazoo area) champion. A matchup with host Escanaba starts Sunday's doubleheader. The top two teams will meet for the championship Monday morning.
Two other teams playing on the big diamond face sectional tournaments this weekend in Norway.
At the Junior (age 13-14) baseball level, Portage Lake must contend with Norway and Petoskey for a spot in next weekend's eight-team tournament in Rochester Hills.
Portage Lake plays the hosts at 6:30 tonight, with the winner playing Petoskey Saturday at 11. The teams that lose those games will have an elimination contest for the right to play in Sunday's championship at 1 (and possibly 5 if a second title game is needed).
In the Senior (age 15-16) division, Portage Lake will play a best-of-three series with Kingsford with games at 1 and 5 p.m. and a deciding game at 3 on Sunday if needed.