Local middle school baseball teams are growing in numbers, and with that, those involved hope the popularity of the sport will follow. It’s also perfect preparation for high school baseball, say local coaches.
This season marks the first in which Ashland and Boyd County will field middle school baseball teams for a full official season.
The two schools joined the Eastern Kentucky Middle School Baseball Conference, which experienced a significant jump in numbers — it expanded from seven to 14 members this past winter.
The conference consists of three divisions: West — Bracken County, Lewis County, Mason County, Nicholas County and Fleming County; Central — East Carter, Morgan County, Rowan County and West Carter; and East — Boyd County, Fairview, Greenup County, Russell and Ashland.
Most teams are scheduling doubleheaders, with many of those games lasting just five innings. Division games, though, must be played a full seven innings and will count toward the team’s record.
At the end of the season, the top two teams from each division will advance to the conference tournament.
Larry Bailey, Verity (Ashland) Middle School athletics director, said that he, along with principal David Greene and coach Tim Rice, helped form a team at Verity because, for one reason, they were noticing a steady decrease in local Junior and Senior League numbers in the summer.
“We just want to encourage the growth of baseball,” said Bailey, who has made it a requirement that those suiting up for Verity must also play Little League, if eligible.
Coaches think the middle school competition will have players ready to more adequately step into junior varsity and varsity roles. Also, it provides them with an early taste of spirited local rivalries.
“It’s going to only strengthen the high school baseball in this area,” said Rice. “All my players are really excited, proud to wear the school colors.”
The rules are the same as high school, and coaches are running practices that mimick those in JV and varsity.
“This is my 15th year here,” said Boyd County Middle coach Gavin Ramsey. “We’re teaching the same things. By the time our kids get to high school practice, they can run it themselves.”
Boyd County’s middle school players were typically part of the JV team before this season, and they would play a few games here and there. Now that there are more teams, it made sense for the Lions to join in for an official season. The Lions have 18 kids on the roster.
Russell was the runner-up to West Carter in the EKMSBC last season. Red Devils coach Dale Hensley has coached at all levels, including varsity baseball with Rose Hill in 2007 and ’08.
“Playing good middle school competition builds your program,” Hensley said. “These kids are seeing other kids that they’re going to be playing against the next year and the next year. It benefits the program.”
Hensley said the numbers of interested student-athletes fluctuate, but Russell has 20 on this year’s team.
“Last year I kind of had a first team and a second team,” Hensley said. “Some of them may not be your best players, but at least they’re getting a chance, and they could become a top player.”
Fairview is one of the smallest schools in the area, but it has managed to put together a middle school squad for two years now.
First-year Eagles coach Brett Cooksey has 15 players, 12 of whom are eighth-graders. The Eagles struggled through a 2-16 last season, but they have their sights set on significant improvement.
Cooksey said there are positives to having a team small in numbers. The players will undoubtedly gain experience.
“It’s just a lot more innings that they can play in,” Cooksey said. “Some teams have 25 kids.”
Rice hoped to have 25 at Verity. He said he can see that happening in the future. For now, he’s happy with his 21.
The EKMSBC will conclude its season with the tournament scheduled for May 17-18.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.