Area coaches form middle school league

What began as a simple idea a few years ago for Brett Wolfe will finally become a reality in the coming months with the introduction of the Middle School Baseball Association.

The North Medford High baseball coach initially came up with the premise as a means to make a more seamless connection for players falling between the Little League and high school baseball levels.

Although Babe Ruth baseball continues to be available to that range of athlete, Wolfe said he had heard from a number of players and parents that they were interested in having another option available to them.

Wolfe said the MSBA is patterned after AAU basketball, where up-and-coming ballplayers play under the umbrella of the high school systems they will someday attend and are instructed using the fundamentals and philosophies of their respective programs.

"We're trying to provide a more competitive, organized and structured setting that would model the AAU programs," said Wolfe.

"It's more of a hands-on approach than we've had in the past and it's what people have been asking for from us," added the Black Tornado coach. "The benefit of that is when a freshman comes in and you're teaching certain philosophies, they've already been exposed to it and know it and are able to make adjustments easier. It benefits the young man trying to make that transition and benefits our programs overall."

The idea sat dormant for a few years because there weren't enough coaches interested in making the league happen, although North Medford and South Medford each had junior programs for seventh- and eighth-graders last year. This past November, Wolfe made another pitch and found a better reception throughout the area.

"With the economy the way it is, it made it a great time to pull this string and try to get this off the ground," said Wolfe. "You can play Crater, Ashland or Eagle Point for far less dollars than it is to get a motel for a weekend and all that kinda stuff you get with playing travel baseball."

North Medford, South Medford, Crater, Eagle Point, Ashland, Cascade Christian and Glide are scheduled to each have teams at the seventh-grade level. The same schools will compete at the eighth-grade level, except that St. Mary's will take the place of Cascade Christian.

Wolfe said there has also been interest from Phoenix, Hidden Valley and in Klamath Falls, but there wasn't a representative from those areas at the scheduling meeting and the league may pick up games with them as well.

The current schedule calls for about 35 games for each MSBA team, with a season-ending round-robin tournament slated June 27-30 for those interested. Games will typically be played on Sundays, with the tournament matchups drawn from a hat.

"One of the really neat things I like about this is that we're not going to keep standings," said South Medford coach Tom Britton. "It's a league but there's no first-place, second-place, third-place. If teams want to keep a scorebook, that's fine, but there's going to be free substitutions and we're not stressing the winning aspect of it."

Wolfe said in deference to the established Little League programs, seventh-grade athletes still eligible for that league will not be allowed to participate and will be referred back to Little League.

Each team will consist of between 12 and 14 players, and tryouts will be held by each respective school before team coaches are selected. The cost to play in the MSBA will be $300, but there is no guarantee that every player at the tryout will be selected.

In comparison, the fee to play Babe Ruth baseball in Medford is $100, no players are cut and all must play two innings, according to Dan Ratty, president of the Medford Babe Ruth Association. Those interested in learning more about Babe Ruth, open to ages 13-15 and potentially 16-18, can contact Ratty at 840-1582 or 664-4261.

The MSBA plans to adopt rules resembling those in high school, but the mound placement will allow for an easier transition than other setups.

Instead of going from a 47-foot mound to a full-size field with the mound at 60 feet, 6 inches, Wolfe said a temporary mound will be utilized at the 54-foot mark. Although Wolfe said the league would also like to use 70-foot basepaths, current field setups don't allow for that and players will still have to adapt to the full-size 90-foot standard.

"The transition is not an easy one for kids who are still growing and trying to learn and master the skills," said Wolfe. "Some kids can make the transition right away but the majority of the kids cannot, and I think sometimes that's where you lose numbers because they have a bad experience."

To help in the transition, Wolfe said the high school coaches and their assistants are going to make themselves available to the younger teams, putting on skills clinics and helping develop practice guidelines for their coaches to follow. Games will also be officiated by the Rogue Valley Umpires Association.

"It's a good way for kids to kind of get used to the high school expectations and the high school skills that we need to start teaching," said Crater coach Jay Campbell. "The best thing about it is we're going to be able to kind of oversee it and coach a little bit so they're given some type of instruction and there's some structure to what they're learning. It's our feeder program and we need to do a better job of giving those kids a better place to play baseball."

Sign-ups have already occurred at most schools, with interest ranging from about 30-40 middle schoolers per program. The first tryouts are slated for the North Medford and South Medford programs at their respective schools at 1 p.m. Sunday, while others will be held in the first or second week of March. Those yet to register may still attend tryouts, although it is recommended that the coach be called and notified so they can add the prospective player to their list.

"Everybody that I've talked to so far has been really excited about it," said Wolfe. "Of course we expect bumps in the road with a brand new program, but we anticipate it's going to be a well-run program and something that's going to be around for quite a while."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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