The future looks bright for baseball and softball fans in the Wood River Valley.
With low numbers plaguing high school baseball, a group of baseball coaches collaborated to create a middle school program to instill in kids the excitement of both baseball and softball.
Enter the Wood River Baseball/Softball Association-sponsored Babe Ruth program, through which middle school kids will have a chance to continue their love for baseball and softball, and get ready for the next stage at the high school level.
The new program will sponsor three baseball teams and two softball teams. The baseball program will be for seventh- and eighth-graders, while the softball program will feature grades 6-8.
This is an important project for baseball fanatics. As athletes become older and go into high school, they'll be pulled in several different ways to choose which sport to continue.
"It keeps kids playing," said Lars Hovey, owner and operator of Sawtooth Baseball Academy. "The Babe Ruth years are tough. They sometimes lose interest. We're looking to plug that hole."
Hovey and Wood River assistant coach Jonah Torseth, along with Kirk Felger of the Wood River Baseball and Softball Association, have teamed up to make the program a reality.
Torseth, who also functions as the Wood River Middle School athletic director, knows the struggles of middle schoolers. It appears that the community and the Blaine County School Board are embracing the program. The school board has allowed the program to renovate the middle school baseball and softball fields and has allowed it to use district vehicles.
Initially, the program was looking for a turnout to field two baseball teams and one softball team. The first days of practice saw so many kids turn out that the program fielded three baseball teams and two softball teams.
"These are good problems," Hovey said. "Before we've always had bad problems. Now we have some good problems. The adjustments excited a lot of people."
The teams will be split evenly between the baseball program and the softball program to form the teams. There will be no draft, just a collaboration among coaches to split the teams evenly.
All the teams will compete in the Northside Baseball/Softball Association in Jerome, and will compete against teams from Jerome, Buhl and Wendell.
According to information provided by Hovey, it looks like the main goal of the program isn't to win games, but to play to learn. The program will focus on instructions, position-specific practices, hitting and basic fundamentals.
All the coaches will be volunteers. High school players will join the middle school players to give good examples of what it's like to play at a higher level.
Think of it as a farm system for the high school.
"I believe that kids at a certain age should decide what they're good at," Torseth said. "They're getting tutelage and confidence. It's a great way for so many groups to get together and supply optimism for Blaine County."
Torseth also believes the competition will enhance development of the players at an early age. Both the baseball and softball teams have deep talent pools, which will breed a competitive edge.
"We lose a lot of kids at the 13-16 age range," Torseth said. "Baseball and softball are losing athletes."
With an abundance of sports and activities around the Wood River Valley, the program has become an important tool to keep baseball alive here.
A major reason for the program is the school board's approval of the fields and use of vehicles.
"I'm so grateful to the school board," Torseth said. "I want to give a sterling example to the school board that the program is working."
Only time will tell if the program will work. As the kids dig deep into the program and graduate into high school, baseball in the valley should improve.
There will be a player/parent meeting on Wednesday, March 21, from 7-8 p.m. at Wood River Middle School in Hailey. It will be the last chance to sign up for the program.
Over spring break, kids can get a head start on clinics, which are put on by Sawtooth Baseball Academy with all proceeds going to both the high school softball program and the middle school baseball and softball fields.
The first clinic will be Monday, March 26, for baseball with coach Russ Wright. The second will be on Tuesday, March 27, for softball with coach Dale Martin.