HOPKINSVILLE – The looks from the crowd said it all.

They’re walking in a parade wearing the same color uniforms as the high school team in town, but only a handful are true locals. Five are from the West Coast and one from the East Coast. Another is from Louisiana teaching teammates French and the Puerto Rican catcher is speaking perfect English since he learned it two years ago after moving to the United States.

Wave to the Franklin Duelers, southcentral Kentucky’s newest summer collegiate baseball team.

“There’s still a lot of people who don’t know about us,” said Tucker Hughes, the manager charged with leading the Duelers’ inaugural season. “We did the parade and there were a lot of clueless faces, which is strange, but the longer this thing goes, it’s good.”

It has taken a bit of time for the locals to take notice of the new summer sports entertainment option in Franklin. The Duelers are 25 games into the season with games happening almost daily until July 23. They’re competing in the Ohio Valley League, an organization of nine teams playing with a wooden bat following NCAA baseball rules and guidelines.

The Duelers lost Friday on a walk-off homer at West Division leader Hopkinsville, a team that’s become a staple of top talent among other OVL teams stretching across Kentucky and Indiana. Franklin currently sits at 10-14 and fourth in the East Division while leading the OVL with 27 home runs.

The new team is made up of close to 30 college baseball players hailing from across the United States. Five are from Kentucky, three specifically from the region between Franklin-Simpson High School alums Rylan Thomas and Matthew Crittenden and Russellville native Jordan Blick – all three currently playing at Kentucky Wesleyan.

Thomas said he’s learning French from another player and his family is hosting Marcos Hernandez, a catcher from Clarke University who grew up in Puerto Rico.

“It’s definitely been a cool experience,” Thomas said. “I was told I’d never get to play in Franklin again and when I figured out I was going to get to go back there, that was really the final decision for me. I could’ve gone to Indiana or Florida and played. I was about to make my decision and decided I was going to come back to Franklin when I found out there was going to be a team there.”

The OVL announced in October it would expand to Franklin. Team owner Phil Cundall, an NCAA umpire, was working an OVL game last summer and while on the drive back to his home in Franklin sparked the idea to bring a team to Simpson County.

Cundall and his wife started the team as a nonprofit and the league made the expansion official last fall. The buy-in fee for a franchise in the OVL is $10,000 and Cundall said their annual operating budget of between $40,000 to $60,000 is coming from donations, sponsorships or out of his own pocket.

And that’s where the first-year growing pain has hit hardest. The parade Thursday in Franklin was a marketing opportunity for the Duelers, who currently average between 60 and 80 fans at home games played at Franklin-Simpson High School.

Cundall recognizes that awareness is the biggest hurdle. It’s now about getting a community to buy in and expand the team name to plug in more local college athletes.

“We just need to get more people in the stands and get more involved with them,” Cundall said. “They think we’re a summer ball team and it’s only going to be here temporarily. But, no, the Franklin Duelers are here for good. It’s been a labor of love to get this off the ground and definitely worth it.”

Thomas has spent plenty of his summer trying to market the Duelers. Sure, he and two others are the only familiar faces on the team, but his pitch is the emphasis on diverse college baseball talent living in the area for two months.

Thomas explains this amongst a full crowd at Hopkinsville High School on Friday. The Hoppers were established in 2012 and immediately won the OVL championship, then added two more titles in 2013 and ’16. Because of that establishment, Hopkinsville’s roster is represented by more Division I and Power 5 program schools – including four players for Western Kentucky between Hunter Evans, Hunter Crosby, Jacob Jenkins and incoming freshman Lane Diuguid.

The Franklin Duelers have more community college and Division II stars, but the building toward a reputable OVL team is already there with 10 wins and nine of its 14 losses coming by one run.

“Not many people really trust what we are yet,” Thomas said. “People kind of know it’s a baseball thing going on, but they need to come up and see what it’s like. A lot of people come and watch, but they don’t understand that it’s college baseball. It’s not mediocre. It’s a different level. It won’t bore you. You’ll come out and enjoy watching and it’s a family thing.”

Hughes is an assistant coach at Waldorf University and managed two other summer league teams in New York and Virginia Beach in previous years. He was hired to coach the Duelers in the fall and said the biggest difference in the region is the higher fan attendance in the OVL, but there’s still more work to do.

“The community has been welcoming,” Hughes said. “Our home games are so fun. Our guys enjoy it and that’s the No. 1 thing, we want them to come out and compete every day. The wins and losses will take care of themselves. If we put a good product on the field and we compete, hopefully it’ll generate more fans because it’s all new to everybody. It’s been a process.”

Franklin will have eight more home games starting with Sunday’s Military Appreciation Night against the Fulton Railroaders. Cundall recognizes time and consistency will help the city buy in and support the Duelers, pointing to the success and community partnership Hopkinsville is experiencing with the Hoppers as a blueprint for what it could also resemble in Franklin.

“They’re not a travel ball team,” Cundall said. “They’re here to stay. Our goal is to get that established, so people don’t think this is a temporary deal. Once we’re in, I think it’ll be good. It’s getting there. … We’re relying on people coming in and buying tickets. It’s cheap entertainment. You’re coming out for five dollars and watching good college baseball.

“We’re trying to get the community involved as best we can.”{&end}

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