This weekend, most sports fans will be focused on football games, Major League Baseball playoffs and the status of the upcoming NBA season.
However, for a small but faithful cadre of kickball fans, their attention will be in Las Vegas, the site of the 14th Annual World Kickball Championship Founders Cup, the biggest event in that burgeoning sport.
More than 60 teams of 15 players will compete in a tournament with a $20,000 prize for one lucky team. It's not nearly the amount that a baseball player wins for a World Series title (more than $350,000 in recent years), but it's not bad for playing a sport that most people gave up when they graduated from fifth grade.
For those not in the know, kickball is like baseball, except the pitcher rolls a red bouncy ball towards the kicker instead of hurling a baseball at a batter. Instead of nine men in the field, the defense is augmented with an extra infielder and an extra outfielder. Unlike the national pastime, four foul balls constitute an out.
Traditionally, the sport is played in elementary schools, but in 1998, a few guys in Washington, D.C., led by Johnny LeHane, David Lowry and Jimmy Walicek co-founded the World Adult Kickball Association to see if the sport could hold up to their nostalgic memories.
"There is a lower skill requirement compared to other sports," LeHane told HuffPost Weird News. "Anyone can play. It's a really fun game. We decided, 'Why should we stop playing it when we stop having recess?'"
The group started a small league, but it's grown. There are now leagues in 35 states as well as England and Iraq, filled with players who dream about displaying postseason heroics that win the highest trophy in the land: the Founders Cup.
Kickball is easy to learn, but LeHane emphasizes that the players who make it to the big game aren't slouches.
"A lot of the players are former Division 1 [college] athletes," he said. "This sport is especially attractive to soccer players, because it requires good ball control, and baseball players also can use the base-running strategy they've learned."
When the teams get to the championships, they literally kick it up a notch, according to LaSalle Blanks, coach of The Situation, a Norfolk, Va. team ranked sixth in the tournament rating system.
"It's extremely competitive here and we appreciate that because, back home, you get looked down up if your team is 'really serious,'" Blanks said. "One of the things that's unique about kickball is that it's not all about big kicks. You have to do a lot of run manufacturing. Bunting is more common. Sometimes, it's bunt, bunt, bunt. It's not just about booting."
Pitchers have secret techniques for tossing the ball to spin at the final moment before it reaches the kicker's foot.
Whereas pro baseball players bring their hefty paychecks and occasionally hefty physiques to the ballpark for what seems like a slow-moving game, kickball teams are finely-tuned athletes, Blanks said. Teams that reach the finals will have played seven games in a day.
"Some pitchers are like machines that can keep going," Blanks said. "Others need a day off, and others can do three innings, rest a couple and come in for the rest."
Tournament rules require that each team has at least four female players on the squad. Blanks, who won the Founders Cup with a team called the Frosty Balls, said there are positions that ladies dominate.
"Women usually play second base or in the outfield and sometimes back up the third baseman," he said. "They will amaze you. Some can boot the ball and they dive for the ball as well."
Ken Hoffman, who plays first base for the ninth-ranked Straight To The Bank, a Phoenix-based team, says having women on the team adds something to the camaraderie on and off the field.
"One of my pitchers met his wife playing kickball and they got engaged on the field," Blanks said.
Sarah Nelson, who plays second base for the Austin-based team Relax And Let It Happen, says all the players who are on teams vying for the championship are all extremely competitive and have the battle scars to show for it.
"I tore my ACL playing kickball and we've had to have ambulances come for players who've exhausted themselves or got severe cramps. We play hard," she said. "This is my first national championship and I figure 8 teams have a chance of going all the way. The best teams don't make errors, they are good at defense and the pitchers throw overhand."
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