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Youth baseball league opener celebrates bond between players, community in Lapel

Apr. 14—LAPEL — The scene at Memorial Park on Saturday was a familiar one that, barring inclement weather, will be repeated several times a week over the next two months.

Under cloudless skies, hundreds of people set up folding chairs or found a seat on metal bleachers set up at the park's main baseball diamond. Dozens of young players sporting brightly colored jerseys milled around, high-fiving former and current teammates before gathering in groups along the baselines.

The Lapel Youth Baseball League welcomed a new season by holding an opening ceremony which, organizers said, embodied the league's growing prominence in the life of the community.

"It's something that's really neat," said Joey Hart, who coaches a 10-and-under team and has volunteered and coached in the league for three years. "The kids all know each other, and it seems like when you volunteer to be a coach, you get the reward of seeing your kids fall in love with the game."

The league has been active in Lapel for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought a drastic decline in participation. After the 2020 season was delayed until the summer, league rosters in 2021 listed 220 active players, down from 250 the year before.

"At each level, we lost one team between drafting (rosters) and starting the season," said Chad Arnold, the league's co-president.

Since then, several people have stepped forward to assume spots on the league's board.

That growing pool of volunteers, officials said, has been instrumental in driving participation to record levels this season. Last year, 219 players signed up before registrations rebounded to 250 again for this season.

"There's a lot more people involved, and I think it's getting the word out a little bit more," Arnold said. "The more volunteers you have and the more involved they are, the more successful the league is going to be, and I think that's what we have going right now."

Those volunteers have used their connections in the community to secure sponsorships and recruit players from Lapel, Noblesville, Anderson and other nearby towns. Local businesses have also responded, with more than two dozen of them sponsoring teams, donating equipment or both.

"It's really fortunate that we have a lot of businesses and a lot of individuals that find a high value in helping the kids of the community have something to do," said Brian Robertson, a member of Lapel Town Council.

The league features teams for children ages 3 through 12, who progress from T-ball to coach pitch to competitive live pitching. Teams from Sheridan, Tipton and Cicero compete in the more advanced leagues, providing older players with a taste of travel ball experience. Rosters are built through a draft among the coaches at each level once player registrations are finalized in early March.

Arnold, who also coaches a 12-and-under team in the league, said he tries to draft many of the same players each year, both for competitive reasons and to give players a chance to build friendships.

"I've had good experience with the kids and the parents, and I like to see them progress as the years go by," he said. "It's fun seeing them get better and better, and I've really enjoyed it."

With games and practices scheduled most weeknights — and a full slate of games each Saturday — the park will serve as a community gathering place where families, friends and acquaintances chat while watching their loved ones compete.

"The small-town environment, everybody working together and cheering on each other's teams, it's really been awesome seeing everybody together," said Stacey Burns, an Anderson resident who has two children playing in the league this season.

Justin Coomer, an instructional assistant at Lapel High School, has played and coached in the league for nearly two decades. He said many friendships that began with teammates in his playing days have remained among his closest relationships as an adult.

"I can think back to the people I played with, and they're some of my best friends still to this day," said Coomer, who is coaching an 8-and-under team this season. "That's the neat part about playing in a community league like this. You're probably going to grow up together."

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.