MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Let them play. The stage was set for the National Youth Baseball Championships on Thursday, a 12-team tourney that boasts competitors from all over the country. The NYBC kicked off with opening ceremonies and a home run derby, and tourney play will begin Friday.
Four sanctioning bodies -- the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF), Super Series Baseball of America and the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) -- have joined up to crown a champion of the highly competitive 12-and-under age group.
The NYBC is in its sixth year of existence, and it will feature games broadcast by MLB.com and the CBS Sports Network over the weekend. Friday's Opening Day will feature round-robin pool play, and by the end of the day, there will be eight teams moving forward to the quarterfinals.
The next day will bring four quarterfinal games, and Sunday will feature the semifinals and the finals of the consolation bracket. The tourney's title game will be played at 7 p.m. ET on Monday, and there will be an All-Star Game featuring the best of the age group earlier in the day.
"It's tremendous. In six years, we've leapfrogged from being just another tournament to being the tournament that determines the national champion," said Alan Lubell, a senior marketing executive for New Media Sports. "We've added an All-Star Game this year, which gives kids who excelled all year but whose team didn't make it to the national championship a chance to show how good they are. On Monday night, we'll have the two best teams preceded by 40 of the best players in the country."
And when he says the country, he means it.
The MLB.com U.S. All-Stars consist of players from locales as far apart as Las Vegas and Paramus, N.J., and they'll face the tournament All-Star team on Monday. The tourney field is also diverse, but it has four teams from California and two from Texas among the 12 teams.
Two select teams from Houston -- the Banditos, who qualified as a play-in from the NABF, and the TC Nationals Force, champion of Super Series of Baseball America -- are among the favorites. The California teams include Diamond MVP from Norwalk, a runner-up in the USSSA Elite Championship, and BPA DeMarini, champions of the Travelball Select tourney.
The home run derby champion was Josiah Castro of the TC Nationals Force, and he went deep 13 times. The runner-up was Angel Tiburcio, an outfielder from the Team MVP Miami squad. The team competition begins on Friday, and everybody is focused on bagging the big prize.
"We try to set the standard in our area," said Ray De Leon, a coach on the Banditos, the two-time defending champions. "It's good to have our companions from Houston here. Off the field, we'll talk and we'll have a great time. On the field, we'll try to kill them as much as they're trying to kill us."
De Leon said he has seen the on-field product improve by "1,000 percent" in his four years at the tourney, and he said the NYBC has done a great job of bringing together the respective champions of several different leagues. With this pool of talent, he said, you're seeing the future of the game.
"It's very important for these kids," said De Leon. "It gives them something to play for in the select world that's equivalent to the Little League World Series. Being here four years in a row, it says a lot. We definitely take pride in this as an organization. We've won it, and now everybody's after us. We've got the big target on our back. It's flattering, and we're excited to be a part of this."
Chris Kuselias, head coach of the Diamond Stealth from New Haven, Conn., is thrilled to be back in the NYBC field. The Stealth made it to the semifinals before losing to the Banditos last season, and Kuselias hopes to send a message to the rest of the country this year.
"We're here to get the word out about Northeast baseball, because everybody thinks we're the ugly stepchild up there because of the weather and everything," said Kuselias. "This is the second year in a row we've come down here, and we're a completely different team. We're excited about that.
"I think we've got some kids that can compete with anybody in the country. We may not play as many games as they do, but we like to think of it as quality and not quantity. Maybe it's a little handicap, but then again, sometimes in baseball there are kids that play too much. You can burn out. You could hurt your arm. We'd love to play more games throughout the year, but if we don't, it doesn't matter."
Kuselias has one player, Chad Knight, who may be doing some moonlighting this weekend. Knight is competing for Westport, Conn., at the Little League World Series, and Kuselias said he hopes to have the youngster in uniform for the Stealth -- the AAU 12-and-under champions -- later in the weekend.
"They lost [Wednesday], so we're rooting against them," Kuselias said in jest of Knight, his star pitcher. "We're rooting for him, but we're rooting against him. We could use the extra pitcher."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.