GARY | For the 12th version of the RailCats McDonald's High School Challenge, the organization expanded its coverage area farther west into Illinois and south and east into Indiana.
The team is packing in 16 games with 31 teams during April, including double or triple headers on six days.
"It's built over the 12 years and it's been great, and with six new schools that have never been here before is wonderful," RailCats assistant general manager Brian Lyter said.
Though the teams traveling to the U.S. Steel Yard are coming from as far east as South Bend, as far south as Lafayette and as far west as Brother Rice in Chicago, missing from the schedule are large-school teams from the Duneland Athletic Conference.
Portage, the only DAC team represented, will play Clark at 4:30 p.,m. on April 11 as part of a Friday double header.
Part of enticing new teams into the Challenge, the RailCats restructured the costs to the teams. The recommendations for changing the costs came from area coaches who have played consistently at the RailCats' field.
"One of the things we had questions about was that they're always changing policies about things like the costs of the RailCats tickets and costs to get in and to their credit, they're willing to be receptive from area coaches," Hobart coach Bob Glover Jr. said. "I think some of the local teams that might have made a difference, but it also might have opened up the door for some of these teams that are also from out of the area, and I don't have a problem with that either."
Hobart will play Highland in a Northwest Crossroads Conference game at 6 p.m. on April 7. The season in Indiana kicks off with practices on March 17 and first games can be held March 31, weather permitting.
"It's a wide range of teams and I think that's good for everybody," Glover said. "I think it's too bad that some of the teams that have been here in the past decided not to be here, but we talked about it at our school is that we don't want to rob the kids of the opportunity to play."
Former RailCats outfielder John McCarthy helped the organization expand its footprint. McCarthy, in his third year at Brother Rice, heard about the Challenge for the first time in the offseason and immediately wanted to be a part.
"The RailCats had a real positive impact on me ... and I felt like this was a good way for our kids to see the Steel Yard first off, and play in this cool venue it's nice to have an organization give back like this," said McCarthy, who finished his pro career with the 'Cats in 2008.
He helped the franchise pick up the likes of Morgan Park, a high-powered team in the southwest suburbs of Illinois that asked if it could have three dates at the park.
The challenge kicks off with Calumet playing Hammond Academy at 4 p.m. on April 5 in the first game of a double header.