News

Road to Williamsport closed in Hanover

Written by Zach Miller/Hanover Evening Sun | Feb 1, 2016 10:04 AM
williamsport_little_league.jpg

"Fans claim spots on the hill outside Lamade Stadium 30 minutes after the Little League complex opened and six hours before the Little League World Series U.S. championship game featuring Red Land, Pa., and Pearland, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in South Williamsport. Chris Dunn - Daily Record/Sunday

(Hanover) -- Several months after Red Land Little League completed its run to the Little League World Series, signs of the team's accomplishments lingered.

Shirts commemorating the team's accomplishments hung prominently inside Hanover's GIANT Food Store's front doors on Baltimore Street. Penn State football and the Baltimore Orioles honored the 11- and 12-year-old boys before games. Hanover Rotary Club announced that the team will do a meet-and-greet as part of its annual Sports Night in February.

These 13 players from northern York County achieved the Little League dream.

But in York County's southwest corner, Hanover's youth baseball players don't get a shot at that dream. A decision by the Hanover Little League Board of Directors in 2014 closed off that road to Williamsport.

Despite boasting the largest Little League program in District 14 - which encompasses all of Adams and Franklin counties and much of Cumberland and York counties, but not Red Land - Hanover Little League is the only league in the district that doesn't offer its kids the ultimate opportunity: a chance to play in the Little League World Series.

"I have an 11-year-old who would love to be able to play for Williamsport," said Phil Grob, a Hanover Little League coach. "That's the dream Little League is selling. But in Hanover, there is no dream to sell."

***

The road to Williamsport starts in thousands of towns when Little League's regular season ends and coaches select an all-star team from its majors (11- and 12-year-olds) division.

By the time the road reaches its final destination in Williamsport, only one team from the region, which encompasses Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., actually arrives.

But there's no entrance in the Hanover area because the league's local board voted in 2014 to eliminate the majors division - the only division that crowns a champion in Williamsport - from its program.

"They're the only league I know of that has made a conscious decision not to have a majors division," said Pete Kline, the District 14 administrator for Little League International. "There have been one or two leagues over the years - startup leagues - that may have had some struggles with not having enough kids. But that's not the case in Hanover."

In 2015, Hanover Little League fielded more teams than any other league in District 14. The league encompasses Hanover Borough and Penn, Manheim and West Manheim townships in York County, as well as McSherrystown Borough, Conewago Township and parts of Oxford and Berwick townships in Adams County.

Hanover Little League fielded 40 teams from tee-ball up to the intermediate division (ages 11 to 13) in 2015. The next largest league, Dillsburg, fielded 38.

So what's keeping Hanover, with perhaps the largest talent pool in the district, from taking a shot at Williamsport?

***

Hanover Little League's history as two separate, shrinking leagues has a lot to do with why it no longer offers a majors division.

When South Hanover Little League and West Manheim Recreation merged to create Hanover Little League in 2013, a new division offered by Little League played a key role in making the agreement happen, former South Hanover Little League President Jim Harris said. The intermediate division, created for ages 11 to 13, offered a version of baseball played by travel teams and which more closely resembles the high school game.

By eliminating the majors division in 2014, Hanover Little League has been able to field enough intermediate division teams that those players and their families don't have to travel out of the area to play. Splitting that number of kids between the majors and intermediate divisions would have meant trips out of the area for teams in both divisions.

"There weren't enough kids to do that in both majors and intermediate, so we went with the intermediate because that was the premise of the two organizations coming together in the first place," Hanover Little League board member Bob Downey said. "The conversation was never anything against the majors division."

The intermediate division, which Little League International began offering in 2013, differs most from the majors division in field size. Little League fields in the majors division stretch 60 feet between the bases and 46 feet from the pitcher's mound to the plate. The intermediate division, as well as most 11-to-13-age-group travel leagues, play on fields that stretch 70 feet between bases and 50 feet from the mound to the plate. High school fields stretch 90 feet between bases and 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to the plate.

The extra space between bases allows elements of the game such as leads and balks to be incorporated, making it more closely resemble the game played at the high school level.

"Little League was, in my opinion, behind the youth baseball curve for advancing the competitiveness of the game," said Harris,who currently coaches the South Western York Outlaws 14U travel team. "There are all these different elite programs that have gained a lot of momentum over the last five years. (Intermediate is) basically full baseball; it adds elements that most travel or club programs have been doing for many years."

As the 2016 season approaches, the Hanover Little League board's stance hasn't changed. But a newly-formed committee will reevaluate whether or not to bring the majors division back in 2017.

"I agree with it," Harris said of the board's current stance. "There's all different travel programs within York County, Cumberland County and Lancaster County. They all start (playing on larger fields) at age 11. All of them."

There is an Intermediate League World Series, played every summer in Livermore, California, but it doesn't have the big ESPN contract or overall recognition of the Little League World Series.

"I think you'll see the Intermediate League World Series gain more momentum," Harris said. "Soon the main show will be the Intermediate League World Series."

But there are plenty of people who don't agree with the decision and would like to see Hanover's 11- and 12-year-olds given an option.

"I like the intermediate division, but I don't like that the 11- and 12-year-olds don't get a choice," Hanover Little League board member Mike Cooper said. "My son will be in fifth grade next season, and he'll have to play with eighth graders. Fifth graders don't want to play with eighth graders; that's not fair."

***

Dillsburg Little League, the second-largest and most consistently successful league in District 14, offers both a majors division and an intermediate division.

Last season, Dillsburg fielded just one intermediate division team made up entirely of 13-year-olds, with the exception of one 12-year-old. The rest of the 12-year-olds, as well as all the 11-year-olds, made up six teams in the majors division.

"Obviously because majors is the division that takes you to Williamsport if you would be good enough, there's always been so much passion in our community for that," said John Gunning, a Dillsburg Little League board member and the league's public relations director. "If someone were to walk into one of our meetings and propose that we eliminate the majors division and try to move all our kids up to intermediate, it wouldn't gain any traction because there's so much passion towards that majors division. When people think of Little League, they think of Williamsport and that exact age group."

The biggest roadblock Hanover Little League would face from reaching Williamsport if it did field a majors program is the relationship between the league and local travel programs. But that's also not an issue in Dillsburg.

Travel baseball has mushroomed throughout the region in the last five years. The players that made up the Red Land Little League team, for example, competed for a 12U travel team called the GoWags Patriots outside of Little League and practiced year-round at the club's indoor facility in Camp Hill.

Unlike the setup in Red Land, where players play travel baseball and Little League baseball simultaneously, most of Hanover's top players exclusively play on travel teams, according to local coaches.

As they do so, the talent level drops across the league, and the all-star teams put together at the end of the season in every division aren't truly made up of the 12 best players in the area. Most of those top 12 are off playing somewhere else.

Hanover heads into every division's district tournament with proverbial B-teams that hardly stand a chance against the A-teams from, say, Dillsburg, which competed in every district title game last season, with a few teams advancing much further.

"Both can prosper at the same time, but it takes some collaboration and cooperation to make that happen," said Alan Felix, a former Delone Catholic coach who founded the Bulldog Baseball Club, a club team based in the Hanover area, in 2013. "You see where it can lead; it can be a successful situation. But everyone needs to check their egos at the door."

The South Western York Outlaws tried to work alongside Hanover Little League in 2014 but stopped after that initial season, Harris said.

"We were partnered up when I was still a board member within Little League," Harris said. "We did a pilot program the first year and had them play rec baseball and play tournaments with the Outlaws. Feedback at the end of the year was mixed between coaches and parents with many thinking it was too much."

Hanover Diamond Sports, an umbrella organization that oversees Hanover Little League in addition to multiple local softball organizations, formed a Tournament and Travel (TNT) program last year for top-tier players to provide an opportunity for them to develop against better competition. The league required those players to also compete in Little League, Downey said, but received feedback that playing both was too much.

TNT players will not be required to compete in Little League this spring, which could cause a further drop in the league's numbers, Downey said.

Dillsburg Little League takes measures to create a situation that allows the league and the many nearby travel programs to succeed in harmony by accommodating those clubs.

The league avoids scheduling majors division games on Saturdays and Sundays - when many travel teams play games or tournaments - in an effort to give kids the opportunity to do both rather than being forced to make a decision.

"We did that knowing there are more of those travel teams trying to draw more players, so we try to work in concert with them rather than trying to battle with them," Gunning said. "It was more a reaction of what Dillsburg baseball saw. It's becoming more of a conflict, so what can we do to eliminate that conflict?"

***

Downey views Hanover Little League's management of its majors and intermediate divisions as an experiment.

"We're trying to do something that we're not aware of anyone else out there going down this road before," Downey said. "Every year, we're trying to adjust to the lessons that we're learning as we're doing things for the very first time. With that growth, there are a lot of growing pains that come with it."

Those growing pains have reached a point at which the board is reconsidering its path, Cooper said. The Board of Directors recently formed a four-person committee to reevaluate whether or not to bring back its majors division, he said.

Discussions are also continuing between the Outlaws and Little League toward trying a reorganized partnership, Harris said.

But even if these changes happen, could Hanover's 11- and 12-year-old boys ever actually live out the Williamsport dream?

Only three teams from York County have ever won a majors division state title. But the last two Pennsylvania teams to win the Little League World Series U.S. Championship - Shippensburg in 1990 and Red Land in 2015 - both hail from the southcentral part of the state.

"The 11-year-olds I have now are good enough to win the district," said Grob, who will coach the 11U TNT team this spring. "(In 2017) we could beat Dillsburg."

And if Hanover Little League worked out an arrangement with the local club teams so that a majors division all-star team truly featured the 12 best players in the area?

"We'd be formidable."

*This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Hanover Evening Sun.

Published in News

Tagged under , , , , , , , , , , ,

back to top

Post a comment

Give Now

Estate Planning

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Smart Talk

National Edward R. Murrow Awards

DuPont Columbia Awards

Support Local Journalism

Latest News from NPR

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »