Little League - for many it draws up childhood memories of idyllic summer days spent on the diamond. It's America's sport, and one that is still cherished by many, but Big Valley Little League board member Jeff Kanagy, and league safety director Mike King, felt concern when they noticed fewer and fewer kids signing up to compete in Big Valley.
Kanagy and King wanted to change this trend - by not only getting more kids involved, but also finding a way to get more parents involved, too - and beginning with the 2013 season, they think they may have found the solution.
Enter modified coach pitch.
Modified coach pitch, which is a slight variation on the coach pitch play already available from the Mifflin County PONY League, is open in Big Valley for children ages 5-7. Essentially, it is the entry level of Little League in which the athletes take pitches from the coach exclusively, or in certain scenarios, hit from a tee.
Big Valley Little League already has major and minor teams which, combined, cover children ages 7-12. By adding modified coach pitch the league opens up play to a wider ranger of children.
"The trend over the last couple of seasons was a decline in the level of participants at the Little League level, so we decided to include a new division to include more kids at a younger age so we can try to build our numbers for our Little League program," King said.
Big Valley Little League serves communities in Belleville, Reedsville, Milroy, Yeagertown, McVeytown and Longfellow and extending the ages of children reached will almost certainly increase numbers. However, this is not Big Valley's only purpose in incorporating modified coach pitch.
As both Kanagy and King explained, they hope that the addition of modified coach pitch will not only add to the number of children involved, but that it will also strengthen the league by improving skill levels and getting parents involved earlier than they normally would.
"It often takes a parent a couple years to get more involved until they feel more comfortable," Kanagy said, explaining that part of the thought process behind allowing children to join at an earlier age is that the parents will also become familiar with the program earlier, potentially leading to greater volunteer rates.
And of course the target audience - the kids - will feel more comfortable with the sport after early exposure, too.
As King and Kanagy explained, by getting time on the diamond and experience with the game, in addition to interacting with kids in the higher level because of shared practice facilities, the hope is that youngsters will build a level of skill and comfort with the game they otherwise would not be able to achieve.
Of course, for many years children have already been able to get early exposure to the sport through Mifflin County PONY League's T-Ball and coach pitch league. In Big Valley's modified coach pitch league, a few changes have been made to the game which King and Kanagy hope will give participants a higher level of competition than the PONY League is able to offer.
The most significant difference between the two leagues, at least in terms of the rules of competition, is that whereas baserunners in PONY League are permitted to advance only one base at a time, Big Valley baserunners are free to advance further than one base.
Big Valley's rules are such that baserunners are able to advance as far as possible while the ball is in play, but once an infielder has possession of the ball, any baserunners past the hash mark - modified coach pitch has hash marks midway between each set of bases - may attempt at the risk of being thrown out to advance to the next base, whereas any baserunners who have not yet passed the hash mark must return to the last base they touched.
"It makes for a much more realistic baseball experience. It's a lot more exciting," Kanagy said of the modified coach pitch rules.
Russ Hurley, president of the Mifflin County PONY League, said that his league is considering dropping the one-base rule, but was not completely certain when and if this change would occur.
Another significant difference in rules of competition is that, whereas the PONY League has a mercy rule in which play is stopped when after a certain point in the game one team has outscored the other by a predetermined margin, Big Valley has a 5-run limit per inning but will not suspend play early.
Outside of basic competition rules, a few other key differences exist between the two leagues, and are listed below so that readers can compare and contrast.
Mifflin County PONY League offers T-ball for ages 4-6 and coach pitch for ages 6-8. Five year olds are permitted to compete in coach pitch, given they already have one-year's experience in T-ball. This is in comparison to Big Valley Little League, where the earliest age of competition is age five.
The PONY League is independent of any other ruling body, and is therefore able to accept players from anywhere in Mifflin County. Big Valley, however, since it is under Little League's sanctions, must limit players to their geographical area.
For example, a child from McVeytown can compete in either league, but if he chooses to compete in modified coach pitch, he may play on McVeytown's team only and cannot play for any other other teams under Big Valley's jurisdiction.
Hurley wanted to stress that residents of Mifflin County can participate in either league.
"Kids can sign up with Mifflin County PONY League, or they can sign up with Big Valley Little League," he said.
Nearly all PONY League games are played at Derry Park - Hurley mentioned that a few are also played at Green Gables - versus Big Valley's setup where the teams travel to each other's field to compete.
"We start with 4-year-olds to 8-year-olds, and we don't hop around as far as games. All our games are played at Derry Park," Hurley said.
Each team also has an end of year celebration, but they are significantly different. The PONY League, which has connections with the State College Spikes, finishes the year with a team picnic at a Spikes game, followed by a short clinic for the kids with members of the Spikes team. Big Valley plans to end the season by having the teams converge at one of the league's multi-field locations, where each team will get have a few short competitions against each other.