TERRE HAUTE —
With a young daughter active in both softball and volleyball, Tony Smodilla, was well aware of the ample Terre Haute-based travel sports options available to its aspiring young athletes.
Yet that same Terre Haute-based travel option wasn’t available to his baseball-playing son.
So in the past two or three years, the increase in local travel baseball options has been led by three groups, Indiana (formerly Terre Haute) Havoc, Riley Recreation League and Junior Rex.
“Volleyball, soccer, swimming … softball has been doing it forever,” Indiana Havoc director Smodilla stated. “Travel was available for everything except baseball it seemed. Now there is an option besides driving to Indianapolis.”
In the “older” days, options for most players were limited to playing in their respective Little Leagues, hope to make an All-Star team, play in the tournament, then take the rest of the summer off.
Now those same top-level players can play together longer and consistently play against better competition. At the same time, this increases playing opportunities for the next-tier and the recreation player too.
The following is a look at what is happening on the local travel baseball scene with the Riley, Havoc and Junior Rex programs:
“We struggled for several years at Riley trying to figure out how to have travel ball, league ball and all-stars coexist out of one facility,” Riley Rec League’s Tim Hayes stated. “We had to bite the bullet and start travel ball, because we had kids that were going to either leave our program and had already left our program.
“The kids that are up to being travel caliber players want to start playing against other travel-caliber players in April, May and June, instead of waiting halfway through June, play a couple tournaments and being done.”
This year, Riley fielded travel squads from ages 8U to 12U. Next year, 13U will be added to the mix. Hayes’ 12U team won the USSSA AA Indiana State Championship this season, its players coming from Riley and Clay County. “Travel is open to anybody within driving distance,” Hayes added.
“We hope someday to offer travel ball through 15U,” Hayes predicted. “Our hope is that someday we can have a travel squad, maybe two squads in each age group and then still have all-stars.”
Hayes pointed out other factors why Riley took the travel plunge.
“There’s been such a big shift in how Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth were handling their all-star tournaments,” Hayes said. “Used to be Cal Ripken had North and South state tournaments, but their numbers went up, so now they have North, Central and South state tournaments.
“[Cal Ripken] also has two tournament trails now for 11- and 12-year-olds. 46 (foot pitching mound)/60 (foot basepaths) or standard Little League, no dropped third strike, no leadoffs and 50/70, which is modified high school rules. That’s 12 “state” championships for ages 11 and 12. So when you win a state title, you don’t feel like you won a state title.”
“Across Central Indiana, travel ball had taken its toll on Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth already, because it’s easy to play travel ball in metropolitan areas. So around Indianapolis, travel ball is very much alive and well.”
While offering travel ball, Hayes says Riley leaving Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth is not in the cards.
“We are going to continue to be aligned with Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth … for players not wanting to play travel ball, or not be selected for travel ball,” Hayes said. “At Riley, we’re trying to appeal to everyone. We want to appeal to the recreational player, appeal to the all-star caliber player and appeal to the travel player.”
Hayes agreed opportunities will be greater for Riley’s non-travel players too.
“It’s the policy of our program you can’t be on both teams [travel and all-stars], they play at the same time, so it’s one or the other,” he noted. “Besides, it takes a spot away from somebody else.
“We did a lot of talking about [travel] for a lot of years without making a decision. You just can’t bury your head in the sand and think that travel ball was not here to stay, because it is. You either have to offer that or you’re going to lose those kids.”
The Havoc just completed its second year, this year fielding teams in the age groups of 8U, 9U, 11U, 12U, 13U and 14U. Next fall the league will add 15U.
“In the future we hope to have teams up to age 17, multiple teams in each age group could be a possibility,” Smodilla said. “Each year we keep getting bigger … we have over 70 players now. My 13U team has played about 60 games this year.”
Havoc players come from five different Indiana counties, including Vigo, Parke, Clay, Sullivan and Vermillion.
“We’ve received interest for next year from players in Greencastle, Vincennes and Casey, Ill.,” Smodilla said. “We’re on the right track. The kids want an opportunity to play at a higher level and get better. This can only help the high school programs all around [the area] in the long run.”
The Havoc teams use various playing fields for practice, including Northview, Gibault and Terre Haute North.
“It’s hard not having a dedicated facility, a lack of a home base,” Smodilla admitted. “But for beginning our third year, it’s not been too bad. There is a need and a desire for [travel], not just in Terre Haute, but around the area.”
Havoc teams have enjoyed much success this year, the 12U and 13U winning five tournaments apiece, the 8U and 11U teams each winning three titles. The 11U team recently won the USSSA World Series in Columbus, then was runner-up in the Grand Slam World Series in Panama City, Fla.
Just recently, the organization has dropped the Terre Haute designation and become the Indiana Havoc. “We’ll still be based out of Terre Haute,” Smodilla assured. “When we go to tournaments and people ask ‘where are you from?’ we’ll still say Terre Haute.”
Many programs suffer from parents who are only involved as long as their children are involved, but Smodilla says he and the Havoc are in it for the long haul.
“We’re going to be around a long time … have no intention to leave when my son goes out of the program,” he stated.
This is the second year for the Junior Rex, fielding a 12U team last year, a 13U team this year, and will return with a 14U team next season, according to manager Stan Dennany.
“We started this as a supplement to league ball … I’m a big proponent of league ball,” Dennany said. “But travel ball is a better level of competition for the kids.”
Last year’s 12U team consisted of players from Riley, Clay Youth League and Terre Haute North and most played in all-stars last year in their respective leagues.
This year, the team has players from the same three sources, and has added a couple players from Marshall, Ill. Also this year, the Junior Rex — by vote of the parents, according to Dennany — decided to play exclusively travel ball.
“Travel ball gives the more experienced players better competition, but it also allows opportunities for next-level players to play at the all-star level … ones that wouldn’t normally make [an all-star] team,” Dennany said.
A major highlight this season, the Junior Rex competed in The Stars & Stripes Tourney at The Cal Ripken Experience in Aberdeen, Md. from July 1-6.
“That was a great experience, great memories for the kids,” Dennany stated. “We played some loaded teams there, from Louisiana, Florida, New York, Missouri and North Carolina.
The Rex play most of its tournaments in Indianapolis, Columbus and Champaign, Ill. Last weekend, they hosted The Rexperience Battle On The Bash at Bob Warn Field. Riley and the Rex competed in that event.
Dates: Aug. 18-19
Ages: 8U, 9U, 10U, 11U, 12U, 13U, 14U, 15U
For locations and info:
Riley Rec League
Date: Aug. 12
Ages: 7u, 8U, 9U, 10U, 11U, 12U, 13U
For info: www.rileyrecleague.org (click on travel tab)
Date: Aug. 5 and 12
For info: contact Stan Dennany (812) 243-4107