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Rowan Little League still growing

It’s January. The temperature has barely been above freezing in the past week. It’s hardly baseball weather. The start of the season seems far away.

The sport, however, is a constant for Rowan Little League president Dan Wales.

Wales goes to bed seeing baseballs — or softballs — and wakes up seeing more of them.

“Some of us work as many hours on Little League baseball as we work at our real jobs,” Wales said “This is another job, really, for all our board members. There’s a lot of planning and organizing. There’s a lot of work to do before anyone’s coaching or playing on the fields.”

Softball is nearly as important as baseball for Rowan Little League. That was evidenced last summer by Rowan Little League winning state titles at the 8U and 10U levels. The 10s went on win the Southeast Regional in Tennessee.

Concessions from softball tournaments at Salisbury Community Park are key to the league’s revenue.

“Softball tournaments are our lifeline,” Wales said. “We’ll hold 22 of them this year.”

The league operates under a contract with the city of Salisbury, which maintains the fields.

“Those fields are immaculately kept,” Wales said. “You walk out there, it’s like walking into Wrigley Field.”

Rowan Little League baseball will celebrate the 60th anniversary of youth baseball in the county this season. The history of Little League Baseball is important to Wales, almost as important as the game itself.

The late Derwood Huneycutt is regarded as the father of youth baseball in Rowan. Honeycutt was a South Carolina athlete who was a basketball star in the early 1940s at Catawba College. He served in the Navy during World War II and, after he returned to Salisbury, coached basketball at Boyden High for 11 years and American Legion baseball in Spencer.

His pet project was “Pee Wee” baseball. He organized a league and coached a team. The Post reported in 1957 there were 256 boys, ages 7-10, participating in the local league.

The roots of Little League go back considerably further than Huneycutt, to a Pennsylvania man named Carl Stotz.

Stotz found sponsors and organized a three-team league, with reduced playing-field dimensions, for the boys in his hometown of Williamsport. The first Little League game was played on June 6, 1939 — exactly five years before Allied Forces landed on the shores of Normandy.

By 2000, Little League swelled from three teams in Pennsylvania to 200,000 in all 50 states and at least 80 countries.

Teaching sportsmanship, fair play and teamwork were the goals in Williamsport in 1939, and those are still the mission for Rowan Little League 76 years later.

“Of all the youth baseball organizations, Little League is the oldest and the largest,” Wales said. “They must be doing something right.”

There are a lot of baseball options. Cal Ripken League Baseball is available in eastern and southern Rowan County. Kannapolis has been a stronghold of Dixie Youth Baseball for many years.

There’s middle school baseball, and there’s also been a rise in travel-ball teams — teams made up mostly of exceptional players who compete in tournaments.

All of those forms of baseball are positive, but Wales prefers the Little League way of doing things.

“I believe Little League does the best job of catering to the average kid,” Wales said. “We do have elite kids also, and they’ll get their chance to shine. Anyone who’s been to Williamsport [site of the Little World Series] can tell you Little League kids have a chance to play on the biggest stage there is.”

This will be a transition year for Rowan Little League. The key feature is the addition of 50/70 baseball as an option for ages 11-13.

Little Leaguers traditionally play on a field with the pitcher’s mound 46 feet from home plate and the bases 60 feet apart. Runners can’t take a lead off a base. Fences are usually 200 feet from home plate.

The 50/70 league moves the mound 50 feet from home, the bases 70 feet apart. Runners can take leads, which changes the game dramatically for pitchers, catchers and infielders. It’s also recommended that fences be moved back to 225 or 250 feet.

The idea is to ease the players’ transition to a full-size field with the mound 60-feet-6-inches from home and the bases 90 feet from each other.

Wales believes the time has come for 50/70 in Little League Baseball. The traveling teams, Cal Ripken ball and middle school ball employ those dimensions. While this will be the first year Rowan Little League will try 50/70, it will be the third year Little League has approved the 50/70 format. There already is a national Little League tournament for it.

Wales emphasized Rowan Little League players, ages 11 and 12, will be permitted to play in both the 40/60 and 50/70 leagues during the regular season. However, they can only play on one team in postseason all-star competition.

The cost to play is $75 for both the traditional 40/60 “A” for 11s and 12s and the 50/70 leagues. A Rowan Little League player can participate in both leagues — which will play on different days — for $85.

“Ideally, we’ll have four teams in the 50/70 and four more teams in the A League,” Wales said.

In addition to the extra format, Wales also anticipates major boundary changes this season.

Wales is making a massive effort to get the word out. Online sign-ups have started on the league’s website —  www.rowanlittleleague.com.  Wales said the league had 10,000 flyers printed to deliver to the elementary and middle schools to reach potential baseball and softball players.

Rowan Little League offers baseball, starting with T-Ball for 4-year-olds, while girls as young as 6 are eligible to play 8U softball. Parents and players can sign up at Godley’s Garden Center on three days — Jan. 17, Jan. 31 and Feb. 14.

Player evaluations for most divisions – Little League still holds drafts — will be held on Feb. 28.

For more information, contact Wales at 704-633-4071 or Jeff Bernhardt at 704-326-5255.

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