Belmont says participation in its youth baseball program is on the upswing again

BELMONT — Responding to an article published in Thursday's Laconia Daily Sun, Brett Sottack said that although youth baseball participation might be dropping some area towns, the numbers in the Belmont Baseball Organization are going in the opposite direction.
"We're in good shape. We're pretty excited that baseball's alive and well in Belmont," said Sottack, vice president of the Belmont Baseball Organization. His organization offers the sport in four leagues: T-ball, coach-pitch, minor and major, open to boys and girls from ages 4 through 12.
Sottack knows what other towns are dealing with. Young athletes have an increasing number of sports available in the spring, such as lacrosse, AAU basketball, spring soccer, whereas previous generations had little other choice besides the traditional spring and summer past time of baseball. Also, central New Hampshire has experienced a slow and steady decline in school-age population. In other words, there are fewer potential players and more sports for them to choose.
As recently as a few years ago, Belmont was feeling those pressures, with total participation in Belmont Baseball Organization teams as low as 130 three years ago. This season, Sottack said, 180 kids signed up, a nearly 40 percent increase over a few years.
What's changed between those two data points? Sottack said participation has ballooned in response to a pair of factors.
The first factor Sottack points to is the switch from official Little League to Cal Ripken Baseball, a move made two years ago. "I think the move to Cal Ripken was very beneficial to our league, our kids," said Sottack. The primary difference in the change is that there are fewer teams in the region affiliated with Little League, said Sottack. Before the change, the only nearby opponents for Belmont all-star teams were either in Laconia or Tilton-Northfield. Now, as a Cal Ripken team, they play in a league of six Lakes Region teams.
"It was pretty cool," Sottack said of the first year in Cal Ripken. Many of their youth baseball opponents will remain rivals when the players enter high school, he noted, which added to the intrigue. "It was a blast."
Of course, baseball's a more enjoyable sport with a winning team, and Belmont's entry into Cal Ripken was rewarded with success. Their U-12 team won the district championship last year and placed third in the state. Winning proved attractive. "We drew a lot of older kids with the success of last year's team," he said. The 9-10 all-star team also did well. Using that recent success, league parents marketed Belmont Baseball Organization to their friends in Canterbury, and a significant percentage of the growth in the league comes from that town.
The organization isn't sitting idle, despite their relative comfort, said Sottack.
Despite the recent success, Belmont Baseball Organization still feels the same pressures that are depressing numbers in Gilford and Laconia. In an effort to promote continued participation, Sottack said the organization has made two changes aimed at getting kids playing baseball sooner and keeping them involved even as other sports catch their interest.
Last year, Sottack said, Belmont Baseball experimented with allowing boys and girls as young as four years old to play T-ball. About a half-dozen stepped up to the tee, some of whom had older siblings and were coming to the ballfield, anyway. "It went well," said Sottack. "There's a lot of kids at that age that are pretty good." The younger they start, theorized Sottack, the more likely they are to develop a bond with the sport. "If they have a positive experience, come spring, they want to play ball."
Another change is a relaxing of the demand for exclusivity from its players. Sottack said kids can be on a Belmont baseball team while also playing another sport. The only requirement, enforced by coaches, is that baseball takes a priority. "We've adapted," said Sottack.
Sottack said his organization will have higher participation levels in the coming season than it's seen in several years. Whether that growth is sustainable will remain to be seen. All Sottack and his organization can do is try to ensure that the players enjoy the sport. "The fact that we've grown three straight years, I'm hoping that the young kids are having a good experience and doing well."