With most leagues cancelling their seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federation League extended an invitation to several teams to join the league for one year.
Clearfield, Curwensville and Philipsburg all showed interest in joining as unattached teams for 2020.
Clearfield will play under the name Pennsylvania Grain Processing, while Curwensville will be known as the Hepburnia Twins and Philipsburg the Spike Island Pirates.
“When PA Legion Baseball was cancelled due to COVID-19 in April, we started looking into options,” Spike Island coach Drew Bryan. “There were so many unknowns and things getting postponed and cancelled months in advance. Eventually, everything seemed to be at a standstill with more questions than answers.
“Until, I reached out to Coach (Sid) Lansberry from Clearfield to see if he had any alternate plans for the summer. He said that he heard from the Federation League and that we should look into it. Sid is really who I should personally thank because he was nice enough to think about us.
“So, I reached out to the league president, Paul Roman and he was very interested in bringing us on. Paul was so receptive and understood that it was a good idea for both sides. The rest is history.
“We had a few league meetings once it was safe to do so and before we knew it, we were in the Fed League with Clearfield and Curwensville. It was a perfect match as they were looking for more teams and we were looking for games, if things opened up.
“In April and May, I had my doubts that Centre County would open up as quick as Clearfield/Jefferson counties. But, hindsight is 20/20 as I feel like we made the right decision and found the perfect match for this summer in these unusual circumstances.”
Despite finding a league to play in, there have been some logistical issues all three teams have faced.
The PIAA hasn’t released any additional guidelines since their last meeting, but have not cleared PIAA baseball coaches to have any contact with their players until at least July 1.
That means Issac Graham, who is the assistant baseball coach at Curwensville High School, as well as most of the Clearfield staff will have to take a backseat for the first month of the season.
Hepburnia will be managed by Frank Hipps, Brett Sutika and Tom Pentz until Graham is cleared for contact.
“I am unable to coach the team, but it feels great to know our young men are going to get the opportunity play this summer,” Graham said. “I would like to extend a sincere thank you to the Federation league for allowing us and the other two youth teams to join their league.”
For Spike Island, the main issue was finding a field to play at. PIAA playing fields, like Philipsburg-Osceola High School, are closed to play until at least July 1.
Bryan said the team did some scrambling before finding a field in Houtzdale.
“We are playing at the Van Dusen Teener League field,” he said. “The P-O High School field is closed right now, and we were scrambling for an available field. I reached out to many fields in the area where our players are from (P-O, Mo Valley, West Branch) with no luck. Then one of the dads of a player came forward and said this field in Houtzdale was available, so it was a perfect match.
“We are very thankful and grateful for the recreation department to allow us to use the facility as it also has a very nice pavilion and ample parking. The Fed League wanted us to try to stay in Clearfield County due to the unknown of counties going from yellow to the green phase. And I think we wanted to respect their wish of keeping games closer for travel.
“We will also be playing a few ‘home’ games at the away team’s field because there are some travel concerns and making the start of the game for some adult players who work.
“All in all, we were really happy to accommodate since the Fed League was so gracious to have us this season.”
The teams have adopted different names for their Fed League teams, including Hepburnia, which is going old school with their team name.
“I actually played for the Hepburnia Twins in 1990 and 1991,” Graham said. “We had a great team and had a lot of fun. I thought, let’s keep it Hepburnia in honor of all the former players and Mr. Glenn Pentz.”
The Spike Island name is one Philipsburg-area players have used in the Centre County League, while Clearfield picked up a sponsor in PGP.
Despite the issues and logistics, all the coaches are just glad to be able to kids back out on the diamond.
“It is a breath of fresh air honestly; a real return to some semblance of normalcy,” Bryan said. “With everything going on in the world, it’s been a much needed escape.
“The past few months have been a very difficult time for these players. They missed a whole year of high school baseball. They’ve had to be flexible and open to change in almost every aspect of their lives. They missed the important reps and development, the memories and lessons learned with their teammates, and just the overall ability to compete.
“So, getting back on the field has been great because I think the kids understand now how precious time and these moments can be. They have been chomping at the bit to get back out there. The parents have been itching to help their sons get some positivity in their lives back and I was more than happy to help to make it happen.”
Both teams have been able to get kids ready to go, but final rosters are still coming together.
“We are still in the process of putting together a roster, as this has come together pretty quickly and with all the uncertainty in world we were unsure if we were actually going to be able to have league,” said Graham. “That all said I know our guys are very anxious to get back on the ball field and fielding a team should be no problem.”
The Federation League has spent a great deal of time on figuring out how to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, and president Paul Roman said they plan to make sure the league follows all rules and regulations to keep players and fans safe.
“The league has had a ton of conversations about player safety, as well as safety for the coaches, umpires, and fans,” said Bryan. “As a league, we are extending the dugout areas by adding more seating outside of the fence for players so they can spread out and have some distance.
“Wearing masks is optional but recommended for umpires and fans. Wearing masks are also optional for players, and on my team personally, I made it clear that I will not accept ridicule towards any players or fans who want to wear masks at our games as it is their right to do so.
“We will not be having any concession stands. As for fan seating, we have additional stands at our facility on the baselines and recommend that fans bring chairs if they want to sit apart with more distance or with their families. We will do everything to ensure safety at our games.”
Bryan said that while many adults play in the league, he will do his best to make sure he keeps his high school age arms safe by not overworking his pitchers.
“That is my number one concern,” he said. “I want to make sure that our guys’ shoulders and elbows are healthy in both the present and future. It’s bigger than baseball too.
“I want this to be a positive experience and there is so much excitement to be playing again and having fun playing a sport. But, I want to make sure we do whatever we can to prevent injuries.
“So, as a team we are purchasing some resistance training bands for the kids to use before and after every practice and game. In my experience, they have been a gamechanger building up stamina and preventing injury. My plan is to take things slow with pitching. Kids haven’t been able to throw bullpens for the past few months.
“I’m going to keep kids on a pitch and innings limit early on. We may throw seven different pitchers in a game early on in the season. We gotta keep kids healthy and on the field so they can have a good experience this summer. It’s really important since they missed out on so much this Spring.”
Bryan will be getting help on the coaching staff from former P-O teammate Cody Doran.
Games will begin on Sunday with Spike Island traveling to Hepburnia on Sunday at 4. All Hepburnia games will be played at Sherman Field inside Irvin Park in Curwensville.
PGP heads to Showers Field in DuBois to play Pulaski at 6 p.m. PGP will play home games at the Lawrence Township Recreation Park.