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Hagerstown PONY League Covers All the Bases

by Missy Sheehan + photos by Seth Freeman

PONY League

The Hagerstown PONY League implements changes designed to keep kids improving their skills in baseball and life.

For youth baseball players in Washington County and the surrounding areas, playing for the Hagerstown PONY League serves almost as a rite of passage, helping them hone their skills during the gap between Little League and playing for a high school team.

Chase Metz and Jared Lazich, both 14 and in the midst of their second season playing for the Hagerstown PONY League, are confident they’ll be ready for high school baseball next year. After playing in Little League for years, both boys say last year’s PONY season challenged them to improve their skills. “PONY League’s a lot harder than Little League — you’re pitching against people who can hit a lot better,” says Chase, who pitches for the United Auto Workers team, and notes a marked improvement in his pitching since last year.

Besides helping kids develop the skills they’ll need to excel in high school baseball and beyond, the Hagerstown PONY League strives “to help them be better people, and better team players,” says Dave Barr, president of the Hagerstown PONY League. The name PONY, which stands for Protect Our Nation’s Youth, stems from this focus.

A part of the nonprofit organization PONY Baseball, Inc. since its founding in 1958, the Hagerstown PONY League is managed by a board of dedicated volunteers. Over the last few years, though, the league has been facing challenges from rising operating costs and decreasing participation. With changes to the league’s structure this year, including several new board members and a new age division, Dave says he and his fellow volunteers plan to keep building the league to try and make it prosperous in the future.

Fine-Tuning Fundamentals

With roughly 140 to 150 kids playing for the league’s 13- and 14-year-old division each year, the Hagerstown PONY League has a reputation for being fiercely competitive. Kids from Washington and Frederick counties and neighboring areas including West Virginia and Pennsylvania are eligible to play, as long as there isn’t a PONY League already in their area. Boys and girls are welcome, though no girls have played in recent years, says Steve Berger, who’s been coaching for the league since 2000.

According to Chase, most of his fellow players in the league are huge baseball fans. “That’s why they’re playing Pony League,” he says. The majority of players come from Little League all-star teams, Steve says. “They’re kids who are here for one reason: to play baseball. Very few of them actually say they’re not interested in a college or pro career,” he adds.

This year, the league added a Bronco division for 11 and 12 year olds. It’s important for them to learn “the pure way the game is supposed to be played” while they’re young if they want to move on to play in high school and college, Dave says. Unlike Little League, Hagerstown PONY League players are allowed to take a lead off the base, forcing pitchers to deliver from the stretch, just like in high school and the major leagues. “There’s a lot of little things we teach them, like how to hold runners on base,” Steve says. “And many players at this level still need fine tuning on details like how to hold the bat correctly.”

The PONY League field is a good transition from the Little League field since it’s bigger, says Pete Lazich, Jared’s father, who’s also the assistant coach for his son’s team. “I think it’s healthy for their arms and for learning the real major league rules of the game,” he adds. And, train players for the physical demands of the game. “We always throw and stretch before practice, then we do a lot of defensive prep,” Steve says.

Keeping Heads Held High

The league also focuses on teaching players the importance of values like sportsmanship, teamwork, leadership and responsibility. “We teach kids that the big thing is to play for your teammates, not for yourself,” Dave says. “We try to teach good core values they can take with them into high school.”

Jared, who plays shortstop for the Susquehanna Bank team, says he’s learned some valuable life lessons from his PONY League coaches. “They teach us to always cheer on our teammates, no matter what,” he says. “We’re also told to keep our heads high, even if we strike out.”

Steve says confidence and good sportsmanship are key for Hagerstown PONY League players, many of whom are playing against friends they made in other leagues. There’s plenty of friendly competition between teams, he says. But the goal, ultimately, is to beat your opponents. “If you want to be good, you have to think you’re the best,” he advises his players. “And you have to try and be the best.”

“But after the game, you should be a gracious loser, and an even more gracious winner,” Steve adds.

League Standouts and Stats

With so many talented players in the league over the years, Dave says he’s lost count of how many have come out of the Hagerstown PONY League to excel in high school and college baseball. Several have even gone on the play in the major leagues in recent years.

Most notable was Nick Adenhart, who played in the league in 2000 and 2001 and went on to play for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim before being tragically killed in a car accident in 2009. Other Hagerstown PONY League standouts include pitchers Josh Conway, who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2012, and Christian Binford, who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals organization in 2011.

The Hagerstown PONY League has records of its own worth mentioning, too. Besides having the third most appearances at the PONY League World Series of any league in the United States, the Hagerstown league sent its first 13-year-old all-star team to the PONY-13 World Series in Fullerton, Calif., in 2012. After being undefeated in regional and zone tournaments, the Hagerstown team came in third in the World Series with a 2-2 record after being beaten by a team from Miami, Fla.

With records like that to inspire them, Steve says players can get pretty competitive during the all-star series, which takes place in July after the league’s regular season and playoffs. Playing on the all-star team gives kids the chance to challenge other PONY Leagues, says June Metz, Chase’s mother. “It’s a really cool experience for the kids,” she adds. “It’s great for them to bond as a team.”

“The best experience I’ve had in a long time was getting to travel with my friends while playing on the all-star team,” Jared says.

Plan On Deck for the League

As a nonprofit organization, the Hagerstown PONY League has faced challenges from rising operating costs and declining participation in recent years. “It can be difficult as a nonprofit baseball league,” Dave says. “We rely on donations and community support to keep the organization going.”

Dave says the league is doing everything it can to raise money and minimize the costs for kids to play. Besides getting support from generous longtime sponsors like the Fraternal Order of Police, Susquehanna Bank, United Bank and Horizon Goodwill, this year the league held several fundraisers.

The league also lowered the registration fee for the PONY division this year from $180 to $100 and offered a special deal for its newly added Bronco division. Kids who signed up for Bronco this year paid only a $50 registration fee, and they were given lotto tickets to sell to offset the rest.

With new members on the league’s leadership board this year, Dave says they’re also working on plans to grow. Plans for this year include adding a batting cage at Hagerstown’s Funkhouser Park, where all the league’s games are held. Dave says the league also plans to add additional age divisions and girl’s softball in upcoming years.

While the Hagerstown PONY League’s plans come to fruition, youth baseball players like Chase and Jared will have more opportunities to sharpen their skills before moving up to the next level. “I definitely want to play in high school and college,” Jared says. “And I’ve been practicing so I’ll be ready!”