Opening up: Youth league teams start practice for late June games

Talia Vargas bats while Lauren Herbert catches during a 12U girls softball practice last week at Wabash Park.

RANTOUL — No matter that Major League Baseball owners and players can’t come to an agreement to begin the season. Rantoul Youth League players and organizers are saying, “Play ball!”

Nearly 350 youngsters, ranging in age from 4 to 14, have been signed up to play youth t-ball, baseball and softball.

Practices have started, and the sound of ball hitting mitt and bat hitting ball can be heard on diamonds throughout town.

Youth Programs Director Andy Graham said the numbers signing up were “better than I anticipated.”

“I didn’t know with it being late in the season and not the normal time frame and not (being) the youth league we were used to, how we would do.”

The coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home order set the season back. But it didn’t stop it. In a normal year, about 500 youth sign up to play ball. And practices normally start in mid-April with games beginning in mid-May.

Ryan Birch and team

Coach Ryan Birch talks to his Pony Legion Red team during a practice at Wabash Park last week. Close to 350 players have signed up for all levels of youth league in Rantoul.

This year, games will start June 29. Games will be played in the evenings Monday through Thursday (two games a night per field) and Friday if necessary.

Graham said the rec department has been calling coaches, delivering items and “trying to get all the kids out.”

Emails were sent to youngsters informing them what team they would be on.  

Practices take place at Wabash Park, the diamond near Dairy Queen, on Maplewood Drive and two on the former Chanute Air Force Base. That’s a total of 10 diamonds available.

“There’s a possibility we will have to use all of our diamonds for social distancing,” Graham said.

There are six teams of t-ball (ages 4 and 5). Games will be played at the youth center. There are also Pony Tail and Stars of tomorrow teams (6-8 years) in which the coaches pitch.

Little league (minors and majors for boys, and junior girls and girls) teams will include 9-12 years-old players. Pony Legion baseball and teen girls softball will feature 13- and 14-year-olds.

Graham said three out-of-town teams will play — two from Fisher and one from Paxton.

 State guidelines will be followed to ensure safety.