NEW YORK -- As 11-year-old Marlowe Ionio walked onto the warning track and into the home dugout at Citi Field Saturday morning, it looked about as he expected: There was Mets stuff. Everywhere.
Ionio, a Yankees fan, was in enemy territory for Major League Baseball's Pitch, Hit & Run Mets Championship. It was the third time the Maplewood, N.J., native won his local and sectional competitions to make it to the championship round, but this was Ionio's first time going to the one at Citi Field -- the first two were at Yankee Stadium.
"We're big fans of the competition," said Marlowe's father, Jeff. "The first year he did it, the sectional competition was at the Staten Island Yankees' stadium, and for us, that was awesome, to get on the field there."
Marlowe was one of 24 participants ages 7-14 in Saturday's skills competition that featured -- you guessed it -- pitching, hitting and running, with bragging rights and a potential trip to Minneapolis on the line. Each Major League park hosts a regional championship, and the top three scorers in each age and gender division will move on to the National Finals, which will take place at Target Field during the All-Star festivities.
Among those eligible for that honor is Joseph Thatcher, the winner in the boys' 7-8 age group Saturday. His first-place finish -- which served as a mere warmup for a crucial little league game he had later in the day -- made the 6:30 a.m. wakeup call well worth it. Thatcher's favorite part was the pitching portion, and it showed. He pounded the strike zone.
"I think for the kids, it's an experience of a lifetime, to be able to do something like that," said Bobbi Jo, Joseph's mother.
The other victors on the boys side were Kevin Milewski (9-10 age group), Thomas Abel (11-12) and Devin Lewis (13-14).
Elle Nittinger took the title in the girls' 13-14 age group in her first year entering the competition. Her dad, John, is a lifelong Mets fan who made his first trip to Citi Field.
"It was fun," Elle said. "It was a little pressure today because there's better competition."
Her favorite part? She took a moment to think, then remembered the very end.
"Probably going up to get the plaque," she said before John put it more bluntly with a big laugh: "Winning."
Paige Morreale won the girls' 7-8-year-old bracket, and Devon Gogerty beat the 9- and 10-year-old competition.
Kayla Hillenbrand of Stanhope, N.J., took the 11- and 12-year-old title -- and it's a good thing. She and her parents skipped her little brother Colin's rec league championship game to make the trip to Queens.
"It was fun," Hillenbrand said, the smile impossible to remove from her face. "It was exciting, the whole stadium and being here."
Tim Healey is an associate reporter for MLB.com.