Mineral County Little League opens season with great success

Staff Writer
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Lance Noel of the Blue Sox slides in to second base as Athletics infielder Mason Whitacre attempts to make the play.
Tribune photos by Chapin Jewell

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

It finally happened - the return of Mineral County Little League.  Not even rain could stand in the way of the triumphant return of youth baseball to the fields of Mineral County. Oh sure, a few opening night Monday games were cancelled due to weather to the disappointment of a few, but some games were indeed played on both Monday and Tuesday to get things started.  

After a three- to four-month hiatus, seemingly everybody, from players to coaches to moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, were filled with smiles to see the kids together again and doing what they love.  

The News-Tribune was on hand Monday night in Wiley Ford to chronicle the coach-pitch matchup between the Wiley Ford Athletics and the Wiley Ford Blue Sox. On Tuesday night, we were on hand to chronicle the Major Division matchup of the homestanding Fort Ashby Red Sox and the visiting Keyser Pirates.

For both contests, rain prior to and even during the games could not dampen the spirits of the elementary through middle school aged participants. It certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of those there to cheer them on either.  

Area sports devotee Donna Whitacre was on hand Monday night in Wiley Ford to watch her grandson Mason Whitacre who plays for the Athletics. For the Whitacres, it’s a family affair, as Donna’s son Carl Whitacre is the coach of the Athletics.

“I enjoy watching him play because he loves the game and I think he does pretty good. And they grow up so fast and I will miss these days. Tonight, I will be at Wiley Ford again because I will have two grandsons playing on both fields, Mason Whitacre and Dylan Clark. I will stand between the two fields and root for them both,” Whitacre stated.

While keeping score and the outcome of the games are really the least important part of the process in this unique season, as the focus is simply on the kids getting to play, a winner and a loser were indeed noted in the scorebook, but there were no losers on these nights.

In the coach-pitch battle of Wiley Ford, the Blue Sox defeated the Athletics in a shootout, 15-10.  In the Major Division contest between the Fort Ashby Red Sox and Keyser Pirates, the Red Sox edged the Pirates in a close, 3-1, defensive affair.

According to Lorin Noel, a coach for the Wiley Ford Blue Sox, “It was fun to see the kids out smiling and enjoying the game of baseball with friends they haven’t seen in three to four months.”

When asked if he thought this day might never come, Noel responded, “Yes, with start dates getting pushed back I thought we were running out of time. The people on the board worked hard and had schedules made up in a very short time and it worked out for a nice little season.”

Carl Whitacre, head coach of the Wiley Ford Athletics, echoed Noel’s sentiments, “It’s great to finally be out on the baseball field.  Coaching these kids is something I really enjoy doing,” Whitacre stated. “I would say the kids are happy that they’re getting to play the great game of baseball this season.”

The game on Tuesday night in Fort Ashby was a mirror image of the Monday night game in Wiley Ford, with nothing but smiles on the faces of the players, coaches, and fans alike. The only difference was the size of the kids, middle schoolers as opposed to elementary aged.

Brent Williamson II, coach for the Keyser Pirates, explained things as he saw them, “It felt really great to see the kids back on the field playing baseball again.  It has been a long time coming for baseball, at one point, we were not even sure we would be able to have a season.

According to Williamson, “I think our first game went really well.  We did our best to maintain social distancing as much as possible by having the kids separated when they were not on the field. It was tough not to be able to traditionally shake hands after the game, but each team still wanted to congratulate the other team for a game well played. Both teams met on the foul lines and raised their hats. We had a great turnout from parents and fans to show their support for the kids and the league.”

Fort Ashby Red Sox coach Mike Orndorf expressed his delight that play has finally started, even if it’s been a long time coming, “After three months of hitting in the basement, a couple of days on the field with just Lanson, Robyn and I, six days of practice, one postponement, we finally got to play for real. I never would have thought the first pitch of the season would happen on June 23.”

“I was so excited for the kids, it’s their last year of Little League and they have already had a lot taken away from them.  It was just nice to see them on the field and having fun. I honestly didn’t even know what the score was until the fourth inning, I just got caught up in watching them play.  It was nice to go the field and not worry about anything,” Orndorf stated.

The fact that Mineral County Little League is the only organized youth baseball league around has made for some interesting changes. The biggest thing is that with the announcement that basically every other area league had cancelled their season, Mineral County has allowed for area youths outside of traditional league boundaries to play.  

One such youth is Cameron Hook, who in a normal, non-COVID-19 year would be playing in the Potomac Valley Athletic Association out of Cresaptown, Allegany County, Maryland. In fact, Cameron and three of his friends from the P.V.A.A. have joined Mineral County Little League this season as members of the Keyser Pirates in the Major Division.

Cameron’s father, T.J. Hook, was on hand to see Cameron and his Pirates in their debut game in Fort Ashby Tuesday Night. The elder Hook explained how it all came about, and was most complimentary about how the Allegany County youth have been welcomed onto the team and into the league.

“When we were notified that P.V.A.A. had officially cancelled their season, we were pretty bummed out, pretty disappointed. My son loves the game and we were upset that he wasn’t going to get to play baseball this year,” Hook stated. “Two or three days later, one of my friends contacted me and said we talked to the folks down in Keyser and they were open for a few new players. We told him we were interested, and so he checked it out, and a couple days later, we talked to the representative from Keyser and he signed us up.”

Hook couldn’t be happier about how his son and family have been received. “We are very grateful to the Mineral County organization for allowing us to do it.  We’re really stepping out of the box living in Maryland and coming to play in West Virginia, but it’s really worked out and this year there are certainly unique circumstances.  My son loves the coaches, he really appreciates them welcoming him in, making him feel like he is really part of the team.”

According to Hook, “They have welcomed us with open arms, it’s nice to see how the community is so accepting of outsiders so to speak. We’ve never been part of Mineral County Little League, for them to allow us to come in and join the organization so quickly and be a part and feel welcomed, it’s just really good to know that we have that locally.”

Was the one year move worth it? “Talking with him after the game, he loved it. He was so excited to get out on the field, doing something with his friends, playing ball, just having fun, it was great,” Hook replied.

Hook details his feelings of seeing his son play after such a long hiatus, “I tell you, it was amazing. Being that we have literally done nothing, as far as organized sports goes for three months, to get out and play the game, just to be here and see the kids actually outside having fun with their friends, playing baseball on a beautiful evening. As a parent, it just thrills me to no end. Even though it’s a short season and it will be interrupted by our vacation, to get out and see them playing ball and having fun was just great.”

Keyser High School track coach Scott Furey, speaking in the role of dad in this instance, agrees with Hook. “It was great to be able to see the kids do what they love.  I honestly didn’t know the score or what inning it was because I was just glad they were able to play.”

According to Furey, “It’s a hard lesson, but hopefully it will help them realize how easily something can be taken from them.  So enjoy it to the fullest while you can.”

Mineral County League president Zack Mellott details that all the reports he’s received on the opening night games have been very positive.  

“Everything I have heard is good. The games have gone smoothly and have been very competitive. We have had some rainouts but most will be made up if possible,” Mellott stated.  “The parents are excited to seeing the kid’s lives return to almost normal. We are seeing smiles on the kid’s faces and so I know they are enjoying it and are thankful to be back on the field.”

“I just hope we have a successful season with no setbacks and it leads to them being able to play their next sport or activity,” Mellott stated.  

No doubt the eyes of many are on Mineral County Little League.  Some may second guess the decision to play, others are likely watching with a hopeful eye to see success, which may then open doors for other sports and other leagues to resume action.

But in the end, all that really matters it that smiles have returned to the faces of these kids who just want to be outside, communing responsibly with friends, and playing the game they love.

A common theme in the words of those interviewed is that everyone was just so caught up in concentrating on the joy on the kid’s faces that the inning, even the score, were an afterthought.  It will again become competitive, but on these first few nights, everyone was just happy to be back the ballfield.

Carson Feaster of the Red Sox looks on as teammate Landon Catlett touches the plate as the Pirates Grayson Lambka attempts the play at home.