County-wide middle school team hopes to one day be school-sanctioned

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By Laura Clark

For the second year in a row, middle school baseball players in Shelby County have the opportunity to play competitively in the spring,

And the team is bigger than 2009, when it was comprised of East Middle School students and won the Ohio Valley Middle School Conference Championship under coach Greg Stratton.

This year, the team opened up to West Middle School and Cornerstone kids. They’re called the Shelby County team, but they have no official affiliation with the parks or school system – yet.

“We’re doing this independently, but we’re trying to force the hand of the school system to pick us up,” new coach Joe Woolwine said. “My goal for this program is to give them an extra season, help every kid in the county that’s able to make the team a chance to move baseball in Shelby County forward, and so when they get in high school a chance to be on an even playing field.”

Woolwine points out that many other area middle schools have official teams, such as Owen, Carroll, Spencer and Anderson counties. Henry County recently approved a middle school team, with the concession that it must drop the freshman baseball team. Oldham County’s team is independent like Shelby’s.

The monetary pressures such a team would create for the school system are a main roadblock, but the impact on the high school teams can be answered now.

During the early February tryouts, Woolwine said more than 75 boys came out for their varsity and junior varsity teams. The high school, which fields varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads, started shortly afterward.

“Our numbers were actually up from last year,” Rockets Coach Bart Roettger said. “Did we lose some people to the middle school team? Yeah, but I think it helps all parties because it gives the kids more opportunities to play. And where it really helps the program is that it gets those kids in sixth and seventh grade a good introduction to the bigger field.”

Though the middle school team is certainly a feeder program for the high school, its independent status means the high school coaches can’t streamline the system when it comes to style or fundamentals.

“Until the school board approves it, we have to treat it like it’s Babe Ruth or AAU,” Roettger said. “We want to follow them and keep an eye on them. When that day comes and there is a middle school program, we’ll definitely get on the same page.”

There has never been a middle school team at either school. With the school system’s budget stretched thin by the addition of Collins High School, those first teams may not come for a while.

East Middle School Principal Anthony Sieg said the middle school team was presented in the same package as the sports programs for Collins. It just didn’t make the cut.

“The issue is funding,” he said. “During these tight budget times, it’s prudent to support the teams we already have in place.”

Sieg commended the parents who spent the energy [and money] to get this team going. All of the coaches are volunteer parents. The expense of running a team was eased a little this year with help from the Shelby County Parks Department.

Parks Athletic Director Chip Minnis said the team pays a fee that is self-supporting and takes care of uniforms, umpires, insurance and field use, for starts. Last year the team just paid to use the field.

“We’re more of a facilitator, fostering the program for players that are more competitive,” Minnis said. “Basically, we’re trying to keep baseball going for kids who are trying to make it their sport.”

The middle school team began games March 18 and will play through mid-May when the conference tournament is held. Minnis said Cal Ripken baseball (11-12 year olds) starts in mid-April, but Babe Ruth (13-15 year olds) won't begin until mid-May.