Batter up! Youth baseball has never been better

Batter up! Youth baseball has never been better
Coaches Chris Snoap and Coty Johnson with their team of girls 7-u t-ball team, the Pink Pirates

Baseball and softball are in full swing throughout the region this spring, and in at least two local leagues the number of players taking part has shown a marked increase.

Hendricks Avenue Baseball commissioner Jon Yost says this season, which kicked off in late February and concludes on Memorial Day weekend, has seen more participants over 2017 totals.

“We are up this year in terms of numbers,” Yost said. “We’ve got 280 players throughout the program. There are 11 T-ball teams, eight Rookie teams, four Minor and three Major teams. While the games and leagues are competitive, we encourage sportsmanship and fair play. Those are kind of the cornerstones of our leagues.”

In Rookie ball, machines are used to pitch to batters. Minor and Major teams utilize pitchers.

Umpire Bo Drew with longtime volunteer Tommy Brooke

Umpire Bo Drew with longtime volunteer Tommy Brooke

In the Navy Ortega Lakeshore Little League, the combined number of baseball and softball players has also increased this season, according to League Director Patrick Barnett.

“We have 325 kids and 28 teams playing in our spring leagues,” he said. “We made a push to up the numbers. We sent out 10,000 flyers to schools in December. Our program is now the second largest Little League in the district next to St. Augustine.”

NOL has six fields at Naval Air Station Jacksonville on which to play and Barnett reports they are busy seven days a week. “Games are played Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. And then practices are Fridays and Sundays so there’s activity all week long,” he explained.

Barnett credits Brandon Bagley, Eddy Litchfield and Tom Welch as filling key roles in program. The trio takes care of grounds and maintenance, and recently gutted and rebuilt restrooms, finishing just in time for the spring season which began Feb. 24 and concludes on May 22.

NOL also completed construction of a pavilion in time for the spring league openers.

Also volunteering on game days are the park’s “concession ladies,” Leah Barnett, Ashley Angerman and Jillian Litchfield. “We could always use more,” Patrick Barnett said, “and that includes coaches. Our goal is to have 400 players, and, of course, we’ll need more coaches to reach that goal.”

As the league continues to grow, Barnett said the contributions of Bayer White have also been instrumental. “Getting people base access can be challenging at times,” he said. “Bayer has been great in helping to arrange that for the something like 700 people we have coming in and out for games.”

Yost also credits volunteers with helping the Hendricks Avenue Baseball league run smoothly. “We are a 100-percent volunteer organization,” he said, “with a few small exceptions. For example, we pay umpires – many times they are teenagers and we give them $10 or something. But we have lots of people step up. A lot of moms want to participate and we are grateful to have them working concessions or as scorekeepers.”

Yost cites what he feels is another key to his league’s success: its family-friendly atmosphere. Everybody plays equally over the period of a season, he explained. “The kid that is brand new is going to play as much as more experienced players,” said Yost, whose son Jonathan, now 26 years old, played in the league as a youngster.

“We also want people to know that money is not an obstacle. Those that want to participate – we’ll find a way to get them in. There’s a good scholarship program and players can come from all over. Most are from the San Marco and Southside areas, but no one is excluded.”

Hendricks Avenue Baseball players on the Astros team

Hendricks Avenue Baseball players on the Astros team

While Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church owns the property, “we run completely independently,” Yost said. “But the church is a strong supporter of the program. We have a board of directors and 50 percent are members of the church.”

Barnett sees a growth opportunity for NOL’s softball program, which currently consists of three teams and 37 players. “The challenge is getting girls interested in softball when they have so many other options like dance, gymnastics and other things.” he said. The issue hits close to home for Barnett, who coaches his son, Noah, in 8-Under Advanced Baseball, while his young daughter participates in dance classes.

As NOL is currently structured, girls can play T-ball until they are 6 years old. Softball begins when the youngsters are 12. One goal is to form a league or teams to help bridge that six-year gap.

“Some play with the boys, but we’d rather have a league for girls in that age range,” said Barnett, who grew up playing baseball on Jacksonville’s West Side and saw his mother become a board member with the Normandy Athletic Association. “So a focus now is on trying to build our softball program.”

Both Yost and Barnett said the spring seasons will conclude with playoffs beginning in May before All-Stars take place throughout the summer.

By Robert DeAngelo
Resident Community News

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