District 5 Little League success has been led by New Albany in recent years, but the summer of 2019 has proven that prosperity extends to Jeffersonville, Sellersburg and Floyds Knobs.
The district has won 18 state championships out of a possible 30 at the various age levels the past three years. That is dominance.
At the 12U level — where the winner vies for a berth to Williamsport, Pa. for the ESPN-televised Little League World Series — District 5 has been the best in Indiana seven times since 2007.
Five of those championship banners since 2007 reside at the palatial Baptist Health Fields in New Albany.
There's several factors to point to for crediting New Albany's success. Community and parental support and a strong talent pool are among them, but another one stands out as a model for Little League programs anywhere to follow.
"I like New Albany's approach. Travel ball's dominant in this area, no doubt about that," long-time District 5 director Shelly Gaither said. "New Albany takes the approach of, if you're going to play travel ball, you're going to play Little League too. Jeff/GRC is trying to start the same type of program with some in-house travel teams and — as you can see — probably it's starting to work."
Gaither is referring to the Jeff/GRC 10U team that finished among the final four teams in the state at New Albany. While that team came up short in its quest for a state title, New Albany's 11U — or minor — team won the state championship in addition to the Silver Creek 12s.
The Floyds Knobs 10U and 12U softball teams, which have obviously been a the standard bearer for softball, have been been dominant as well, making a strong bid for a World Series appearance at the 12U level this year. Also, the Highlander Youth Recreation 50/70 squad reached the Intermediate World Series for the second time in three years.
Success like this has been in the district since the 1960s. The George Rogers Clark (GRC) Little League won state titles in 1963 and 1965, with the '65 team going on to win the North Region title and compete in the Little League World Series, where it took fourth place.
That success continued into the 1980s.
New Albany's Tom Wint, who has provided color commentary on Little League broadcasts on WXVW, was president of the New Albany Little League in the 1980s. He recalls the district's strength back in those days as well.
"Jeff and GRC were both always tough. Clarksville had some tremendous teams back in those days. It's been a super competitive Little League district for a long, long time," Wint said.
GRC won state titles in 1989 and 1990. New Albany has set the standard for the district since that time. Wint agreed with Gaither's assessment.
"I think the one thing that's helped New Albany, Jeff/GRC and Silver Creek, they're still taking it seriously. At New Albany, you can't play travel until the Little League team gets beat. Most of these kids on these All-Star teams have been playing on travel-ball teams," Wint said.
Current New Albany league president Justin Endres said New Albany's overall participation numbers have been on the rise. Ever since the league adopted the philosophy of making the league a priority, success has followed.
"People tell me travel ball's going to kill Little League. But [not] if you have a good product. We try to focus on the kids having fun. We've tried — and before I was on the board — people were very serious about telling people if you have a travel game, you're gonna miss that and go to your league game. Our league has been great about parents buying into that," Endres said.
In these days of mammoth-sized travel-ball tournaments, Little League has seen a decline in communities joining other organizations. A parent on an opposing team at the 10U state finals described it as "dying."
Well, ESPN will carry a record 345 games on its various networks, which includes online streams on ESPN+, showing that it is investing big time in the sport.
Communities can follow suit with an investment. There was something special about seeing a couple hundred fans milling around from the community as a whole at Jeff/GRC the night of the District 5 finals.
There are other communities that retain that strong competitiveness and pride in the Little League brand. Brownsburg, which won four straight state titles from 1999 to 2002 and has a pair of trips to the Little League World Series, has a similar philosophy to New Albany.
"We have a part-time travel program," said Brownsburg's Jon Regashus, who has coached multiple sons in the league. "It works in conjunction with our Little League program. All of our kids play a full Little League schedule. They never miss a Little League game. The 10s have a weekend off and go play a travel baseball tournament and they'll do that about three weekends a year. Outside of that, we play Little League. Because Brownsburg's been there before, there's an aspect of tradition and it matters to people in the community."
Silver Creek has obviously found Little League success to be yet another thing to unite its community.
Several years ago, Silver Creek 12U coach Damon Lewis started his son, Jackson, in Little League before leaving for travel ball.
"Everybody started in Little League and then tried the travel ball thing. I just love following the local teams. I always thought we could come back to Little League and be competitive," Lewis said. "That's what we did. I brought my son back and [Cullen] Garloch started playing."
He convinced others as well.
"I reached out to some other parents and said 'I don't care if you guys play travel ball, it's great, it's extra baseball and a lot of these kids, that's what they know. They don't know Little League. When I talked to some of the parents about coming back, I said, 'We can put together the talent we've got and make a run at district.' You never really know. Then last summer, Preston Burton's parents switched him to Silver Creek after going to Scottsburg. I knew he was pretty good. They were on board with it and it snowballed from there."
Silver Creek's Little League board has also added the Southern Indiana Dragons travel teams, hoping to strengthen the league, Lewis said.
Why does Little League matter?
There's the community aspect of it. And there's something to be said for a high school senior who can tell you about how he's been playing with the same guys he battled with for a trip to the Little League World Series.
Maybe it's not exclusive to youth baseball, but getting involved in youth team sports is good for kids as they learn to harness their emotions and work as part of a team.
"Boys and girls learn an awful lot about life by playing on Little League teams where everyone's not a star," Wint said. "You learn how to support players who maybe aren't gonna play in high school, but you learn how to support kids that aren't elite talents. I would promote any parent if they can keep their kid in Little League, it's a good advantage for them."
Craig Pearson is the sports editor of the News and Tribune. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com, on Twitter @CraigPearsonNT or by phone a 812-206-2116.