A season of change for Little League baseball will see two local leagues merge and another disband.
Little League Baseball Inc., in Williamsport, launched a rule change this year that will allow youngsters to play in any league within the school district they attend.
That development helped fuel the merger of the Pleasant Gap and Marion Walker leagues, both located in the Bellefonte Area School District. That merger is awaiting formal approval from Williamsport, and will result in a new league known as Nittany Valley.
The school district rule helped bring an end to the Tri-County League, which has included teams in three school districts — State College, Bald Eagle and Tyrone.
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In 2014, Little Leaguers in the Stormstown/Halfmoon Township area will join the State College American and National program. Those in the region including Port Matilda Borough and Worth and Huston Townships will be eligible to play in the Milesburg League. And players from the communities of Warriors Mark, in Huntingdon County, and Bald Eagle, in Blair County, will now be in the independent Tyrone league’s territory.
“That rule is a game-changer in Little League,” said Dan Auman, head of the Pleasant Gap Little League organization.
Little League Baseball Inc. believes allowing youngsters to move around within a school district gives parents more convenient options, Wayne Henninger, senior communications executive said in an email.
Henninger said parents had asked for the change.
“We have been receiving requests from parents around the nation to allow their children to play for the league where they go to school and with their classmates,” Henninger said. “We’ve already been approving many of those requests. This gives that opportunity to all Little League families now.”
Frank Germino is the director of Little League’s District 5, which encompasses Centre and neighboring counties.
He said some local leagues have seen their participation levels slipping, and that was also a factor in decisions at Tri-County and Pleasant Gap/Marion Walker.
“When you look at the whole Centre County region, there’s so much for kids to do now, with soccer, travel baseball, lacrosse,” he said. “I don’t think participation is there like it used to be. And I think a lot of those activities are taking away kids who did play baseball.”
Germino and others fear for the future of youth baseball in some areas.
“I can see the intentions of what they’re trying to do,” Germino said. “But if you look at this county, from Tri-County down through even Keystone, the rural areas are going to suffer.”
“What is central Pennsylvania made up of? It’s all those small towns,” said Tim Mazer, whose 6-year-old son, Zachary Mazer, plays tee ball.
Zachary will be among the dozens of children shifting from Halfmoon to State College this spring.
“You have Altoona, State College, Williamsport. But what’s in between? Small towns and small rural Little Leagues,” Mazer said. “And I can’t imagine there will be too many rural Little Leagues that will thrive and survive after this.”
“Depending on registration numbers, some smaller leagues may be impacted,” Henninger said. “In general, if a league is successful, and if children and families are enjoying the experience, Little Leaguers are playing with their friends and classmates and the league remains a convenient option for parents, a particular league won’t be overly impacted by the new rule.”
He did acknowledge the potential for increased costs as families travel greater distances for games.
“Some might have longer drives, some might have shorter drives,” Henninger said.
Pleasant Gap-Marion Walker
Auman said talks of a Pleasant Gap merger with neighboring Marion Walker started years before the school-district participation rule was instituted.
The two organizations have held inter-league games for many years, he noted.
Now they’ll move forward as Nittany Valley.
“I’m glad we had been working on this,” Auman said. “When this new rule came out, we would have really been scrambling. I’m really excited. Everybody on both sides of the new league seems to be ready for this.”
Half of the practices and half of the games will be schedule at each complex, splitting time between Zion and Pleasant Gap.
He said the Marion Walker complex offers the only girls’ softball option in the Bellefonte Area School District, and 50 girls ages 7-12 are already signed up for 2014.
Kathy Ellenberger, Bellefonte League secretary, said eight middle-school-age players who had previously been in Pleasant Gap or Marion Walker have signed up with her league for this year.
She said Bellefonte’s participation has remained strong. The league will hold games for the 66th straight year at Webster Field.
She’s not sold on the school-district rule, however.
“I want to say curse, but everything has two sides,” Ellenberger said. “It’s a lot more paperwork for us. That would be the difficult part.”
Auman said Pleasant Gap had 74 kids last year on four teams over three age levels, but just one major team for 12-year-olds.
The new Nittany Valley League will boast upwards of 200 youngsters, comparable to neighboring Bellefonte.
“We’ve had to keep moving younger kids up, robbing from the younger divisions to fill teams in the higher divisions,” he said.
Officials did confirm is that the Tri-County League is no more.
But what that means specifically for Little League families in the Port Matilda-Julian region, and even across the Bald Eagle Area School District, is not settled.
Gary Heverly, president of the Milesburg league, said a meeting Sunday at the high school in Wingate will involve representatives of the former Tri-County communities, Snow Shoe and the Mountaintop, and Milesburg and Howard.
Howard already plays under the Milesburg umbrella, while Mountaintop operates as its own league.
Port Matilda-Julian is likely to land under the Milesburg banner, Heverly said, but could form a small separate league for the short term.
“Within the next two weeks we should know where we’re going,” Heverly said.
He would like to see all areas of the school district under one Bald Eagle League banner, even if some sub-regions play regular-season games separately.
That would allow for district-wide all-star teams, Heverly said.
He said Milesburg hasn’t yet seen a surge in enrollment of players from the northern end of the valley, but noted that the sign-up process is in the early stages and many parents are likely waiting to see how circumstances play out.
“We’ve been talking about this as an area for a long time, trying to figure out how to get all of the leagues in the district together,” he said.
He said one point of discussion is maintaining games at all fields, and allowing the Little League associations in places such as Port Matilda and Huston Township to remain independent.
“We’re not going to take over their concessions and nobody’s going to take over their fields,” Heverly said.
“When Port Matilda and Julian merge, they’re going to fall under the Milesburg umbrella. But within that umbrella, they would still be somewhat separate.”
Pat Hawbaker, president of Halfmoon Little League, said State College league officials have been very welcoming. He said they expressed an interest in playing some games under the lights in Stormstown, in addition to fields already used across the Centre Region.
But he is still disappointed that the Tri-County league is folding, a decision made in the past few weeks.
“This was one of the oldest Little League associations in the United States,” he said. “And it’s been unique that we’ve pulled from the Bald Eagle school district, from State College and from Tyrone.”
Hawbaker said “the writing was on the wall” when the school district rule hit.
“It makes it pretty challenging for Tri-County as a rural league to remain competitive and have the numbers conducive to having a viable league,” he said. “This will be a death sentence for many rural leagues, in my opinion.”
Hawbaker said the Halfmoon program peaked around 110 kids 5 or 6 years ago and is now at a “new normal” of about 90 youngsters ages 5 to 12.
“State College has been very accommodating,” he said. “It’s been good. It’s just going to be different. You lose that personal Little League community feeling that we all grew up with.”
State College League president Jennifer Meengs said her organization has seen a decline in participation, and adding the Halfmoon contingent will allow State College to remain at about 600 players, matching 2013 levels.
“It only makes sense that kids who go to the same schools should play baseball together,” Meengs said.
State College operates several fields and plays on numerous others in an agreement with Centre Region Parks & Rec.
“We’re blessed. We have some of the best fields around in this area,” Meengs said. “Now we’re going to be even better, because Halfmoon has that beautiful field with lights near Way Fruit Farm.”
Mazer and Hawbaker fear some children in Halfmoon Township won’t play baseball at all now for various reasons, including increased travel time and costs as well as elevated competition for roster spots.
“The kids from Halfmoon will now be blended in with State College,” Hawbaker said. “I’m not sure that all of those kids are going to make it. And this will reduce some coaching opportunities as well.”
“It certainly changes the dynamic in terms of the number of kids who are likely to participate,” Mazer said.
He added: “The Little League experience is not just about sports, but also what the kids can learn about life. It’s team work. It’s sportsmanship. And some kids are going to miss out on that, unfortunately.”
The baseball complex on Gettig Lane is a popular spot in Pleasant Gap. Many people stop by for games there, whether they have children playing or not, Auman said.
“Some people are disappointed that there’s not going to be a Pleasant Gap League,” Auman said. “You get small towns like this, and everybody knows everybody, people come up through playing together. So it’s disappointing. But we’re trying to do what’s best for the kids and for Little League. And we’ll still have baseball in this town.”
Some towns might not.
Although Stormstown will host games this summer, the future is less certain for Tri-County communities such as Julian, Port Matilda and Warriors Mark, where Little
Leagues games are part of the local culture.
Heverly said while he supports a unified Bald Eagle organization, he understands the size of the district — about 30 miles from end to end — is a challenge.
“You don’t need people from Port Matilda driving all the way to Howard or the Mountaintop all the time,” he said. “That’s a lot of gas money.”
There will be an effort to maintain a presence in places where games have been played for years. One option, he said, is a system where different age levels have different primary fields.
“That’s the piece that we emphasized,” Heverly said. “We need to make sure there are games happening in each community. That’s something Howard folks said when they joined with Milesburg.”
Germino’s children competed right down the street from their home in Warriors Mark, as did generations before them.
“There was a time when every little community had their own team, and it was good baseball,” Germino said. “It’s different than it was 30 years ago, when pretty much all kids did was play ball. You could go to a field almost anytime and kids would be playing ball. You don’t see that anymore.”
Follow Chip Minemyer on Twitter @MinemyerChip.