Does travel, AAU ball take local youth away from city youth leagues? Part II of two

The dearth of youth leagues in Leavenworth has had plenty of voices speak out on the need for more.

But one thing some attribute the lesser numbers in kids involved and the subsequent leagues available, is the push for local kids to play in bigger, metropolitan areas.

Be it for competitive reasons or exposure to play collegiately, many seem to think that moving the games outside of the area will encourage growth in both areas over doing it here at home.

“The landscape for youth sports has changed over the years,” Steve Grant, Director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Leavenworth said. “Traveling teams have become very prevalent in this generation.   If the other 80 percent were not participating, we would not have any leagues.   Our department looks to fill the void for children looking for recreational sports.   Many families are not interested in competitive activities and they are not interested in traveling --- our goal is fill that void for families.

“I do not believe that there is a lack of participation.   Until there is 100 percent participation, I will not be satisfied.   

“Children have many more options available to them and specialization has become a way of life for this generation of children.   Children are playing lacrosse, volleyball, basketball, golf, swimming teams, running track, tennis, horseback riding, etc.,  year-round.   It is no longer football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball/softball in the summer.”

Leavenworth recreation director, Tabor Medill also cites outside competition as a draw away from a potential higher number of youth leagues available for kids.

“We don’t have a big enough population to have a recreation league and a competitive league,” Medill said. “We are basically the same here – numbers-wise – as we were when I first got here (six years ago). Pleasant Ridge used to have a team here and Lansing used to have a team when I was a kid. Lansing is now basically in a (baseball league) that their high school is in, so they are no longer in Leavenworth. The Easton Youth Athletic Association are aligned with communities with their high school conference and are based on grade.”

Some local coaches reflect the parks and recreation gentlemen’s sentiments in their own day-to-day offerings.

“I believe that there are a lot of kids playing, but I think they take their competition to the Kansas City area,” former Leavenworth High alum and current Pleasant Ridge High School athletic director and girls’ basketball coach Mike Koontz said. “I think that they feel as though they are that close and it is an easy drive to get to the Kansas City area and join a team.   There is also high competition on those teams.

“I personally drive my daughter to a team based in North Kansas City to play softball because there are no competitive teams in the Leavenworth/Lansing area.   There are some recreation teams but no competitive teams. I don't think it’s a cop out for kids to go to KC to play in leagues or on teams.   They want the best and highest competition levels they can get.   Leavenworth being so close to Kansas City is going to make this happen.   I also believe there are many more kids in the Leavenworth/Lansing area that  do not participate in athletics for one reason or another.   It is very disappointing that parents do not get their children to participate in athletics when they are young.   I think there are many children out there that should be playing some type of sport but are not.”

Others may not simplify the issue that easily.

“They can blame travel ball all they want, but travel ball has been there for years,” Leavenworth High baseball coach Joe Allison said. “The fact of the matter is they make no effort in maintaining the leagues and recruiting our local kids. Taking the locks off the gates (at Sportsfield), does a couple of things: It gives tax payers instant access to one of the most expensive parks in town. Then they could use the fields to practices or play games on. They could use the batting cages at any time. Why is the skate park not locked up? Why are the tennis courts not locked up? Why are other parks not locked up?

“Local recreation leagues are for the local recreation players. Great players have always gone outside the community to seek competition at a higher level. The problem is not that our great players are seeking and competing in AAU leagues, the problem is that the other 80 percent of the youth population is not participating at all. The recreation department can blame anyone they like, but they have all of the resources to make the city recreation leagues happen and excel, but they choose to sit idle and just accept lack of participation.”  

Medill notes that Allison’ fine efforts to build a BlueJays’ baseball organization that starts in early grade school, plays its games outside of Leavenworth as well.

Grant says that the park district does make ample efforts to get kids involved.

“We send flyers home with every child through the school system,” Grant said. “We also advertise it on our city website.   This coming school year, the school system will send a blast to the families for us.

“These are the only skate park, tennis courts we have availability in the community.   There are several other baseball/softball options available within the community.”

Leavenworth boys’ basketball coach Larry Hogan believes that the younger athlete has no reason to leave the area and the older ones may benefit as well by sticking around and toiling around what is familiar.

“There are all sorts of reasons for them to continue to stay local until they are older,” Hogan said adding he remembers a day when many more youth leagues could be seen on a summer day. Some get phased out and for some the travel and expenses becomes too much. A club coach goes out and recruits players.   If a player is not getting it done, instead of working with them and trying to improve their game, they simply look for someone else to replace them. There is little or no loyalty to anyone or any particular team. This is a two-way street between player and coach.   

“I know of one club coach who on a weekly basis, calls players on other teams to see who is unhappy so he can try to recrruit them away.   It is a message to players that at the first sign of adversity--run to another team.   I am sure you can find some teams where these problems do not exist.   If you compare the amount of practice time a high school coach puts in with a player compared to the time they spend in club practice, the club time is very minimal.   Generally speaking, players are developed by their high school coaches.”   

Koontz believes there are not enough people around to make youth leagues thrive more than they already are.

“I do not believe there are enough people around to take charge of a team or organization to build one,” Koontz said of the development of local leagues and teams.   “The biggest organization in Leavenworth is the Leavenworth Pioneers baseball organization.   Joe Allison has built this organization into a very positive organization for Leavenworth.   There are no other teams or organizations in any sport like this.   To build something like this it takes time and patience to develop it.   I also believe that the competition level plays into this.   Parents want the highest competition level for their children.

“The biggest thing is competition level.   Without competition parents are going to continue to take their kids out of town to play on a team or different league.   I do not believe that recreation ball is the answer to the problem.   It is a competition problem.”

Medill doesn’t see that as a problem for the park district as much as it is, a new way of life and he is also having to battle the yearly grind of finding people to coach.

“This generation doesn’t play in (summer recreation leagues),” Medill said. “They travel. It is contributing to where the kids are, not necessarily pulling our kids away. The competitive kids, are traveling all the time. The competitive teams are playing 12 months out of the year.

“Getting parents to step up and be coaches, every year, I end up calling parents and saying, ‘I know you don’t want a coach, but I don’t have a choice, I need coaches.’”