SPARTA-They sat in a circle last weekend in the middle of the field at Station Park. It could easily have been the middle of nowhere for a team of 14-something girls from Concord, N.H. But it was Sparta, New Jersey, and the first time the township had ever played host to a national Babe Ruth softball tournament. Their coach and his assistant waited nearby for the team's next game, another in a series of matches against 15 regional champions from across the United States. "This is what they came to do," said the coach, putting one leg up on a bench as he leaned into the 85-degree humidity. "It's what they enjoy." About 225 players under the age of 14 took part in the tournament over the course of five days at Station Park. Some traveled by plane from as far away as Texas, others took a two-day bus trip out of Kansas, while fewer came from down the road including tournament director John Bromback, a volunteer with Sparta Girls Sports, which offers organized softball to girls of all ages throughout the year. Sparta served as a gracious host, until the teams stepped onto the field. The team of Courtney Bailey, Katie Bromback, Lauren Dick, Sarah Fletcher, Amanda Garger, Christine Jannuzzi, Amanda Kent, Erin Peterson, Raleigh Sperring, Mellissa Sullivan and Stephanie Trum finished among the top four teams in the tournament before losing to a group from Louisiana in the semifinal round. "We wanted to host the tournament here because there's no place like home," said Bromback. "The girls were so eager to show everyone what New Jersey was all about." Sparta Girls Sports blocked about 300 area hotel rooms n including 18 at a Holiday Inn in Mount Arlington -- for players, their families and friends who needed overnight accommodations. Andy Garger, the tournament's assistant director, said the event attracted about 1,000 participants and spectators during the week, some dishing out as much as $1,500 to feed and house their families. The tournament began Wednesday with a banquet, where girls got to meet each other and get acquainted, forming relationships that would extend beyond the baselines. "It's about all those corny clichés," said Garger. "It's a once in a lifetime experience. It's friendships
life experiences." The Texas team, which made an unexpected early exit from the tournament after a loss to Sparta, got to take in the local sights n everything from Sparta Lanes to a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. Other visitors were limited to Station Park, one game followed by another until their rooting interest suffered a loss and was eliminated from the tournament. "Sparta's very beautiful," said a woman from a small suburban town near Washington, D.C. "But we're really just driving through." In what little spare time they had, a couple of people said they went to the mall in Rockaway. One family visited the state fair in Augusta. But, most spent their evening poolside at hotels in Morris County, waiting for the next day's games without seeing much of Sparta. A middle-aged man from Maryland with a daughter on the local team said he did manage to sneak a peak at Lake Mohawk during an unintentional scenic drive to one of the games. "This is our vacation," he said between bites of a hamburger purchased from a nearby food stand. "We don't get much of a chance to look around. We eat, sleep, and then watch softball." A blonde shortstop from the Maryland area took time out between games to celebrate her 15th birthday. Shannon said she normally spends her birthday at the beach, but got a pair of pajamas and a cheerful serenade from her teammates instead before the championship game a few minutes away. Just a softball throw away, the girls from New Hampshire passed the time. One player said she met a girl named Jordan, which made her think of her sister and the seven-hour drive back home. A teammate with brown hair and the familiar blue jersey talked about Dairy Queen, and how lucky people in Sparta were to be able to buy "Blizzards" whenever they wanted to. Another friend sitting next to her then playfully pushed her toward the grassy outfield. "It's good if we win," she said. "It's even better when we're together."