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Interest in W.Pa. youth sports leagues abounds

| Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 9:20 p.m.

About six years ago, Tom Hussey was looking for a way to get his 4-year-old son involved in baseball. He found an opportunity in his hometown, as the Norwin Community Athletic Association offered a division for children as young as 4.

Today, the association's youngest divisions are growing rapidly. The “Tiny Sluggers” (4-year-olds) and “Little Sluggers” (5- and 6-year-olds) divisions contained 20 teams this spring, the largest number in Hussey's time with the association.

“The opportunities for kids today are tremendous, and I think the parents are out looking for activities for their kids to do,” said Hussey, the organization's president. “Back whenever my son was starting, the hardest thing to do was get plugged in to ‘What can my kid do at a certain age?' Once you find out, usually it's through word of mouth. We've been pretty fortunate as an organization. We've made an effort in hitting up the daycares with our advertising, and I think it's paying off.”

The increase among younger players isn't unique to the organization, which includes North Huntingdon and Irwin. Officials from youth sports organizations throughout Western Pennsylvania say they've noticed an increased interest from younger players.

One such organization, i9 Sports, began in the northern suburbs in 2007 and expanded to the western, eastern and southern suburbs in 2012. The organization, which counts T-ball, basketball, flag football and soccer as its core sports, offers leagues and instructional programs for children as young as 3.

“I think, for the most part, there's not a lot of things going on for kids in those age groups, sports-wise,” said Steve Bonenberger, one of i9 Sports' Pittsburgh program directors. “One of the most important things is having a program that's going to be able to reach the kids at the field and help them enjoy, in many cases, their first experience with the sport.”

There are pros and cons to getting children involved with sports at such an early age. Hussey said playing sports at a young age promotes a healthier lifestyle for children and can give them a love of the game.

However, an American Medical Society for Sports Medicine report released in January said overuse injuries and sports burnout have become common, partially because many athletes begin specializing in one sport at a young age.

Ron Lutz, president of the Greater Baldwin Whitehall Athletic Association, attributed the increase in problems to the popularity of travel and Amateur Athletic Union programs. Travel tournaments exist for children as young as 7 in baseball and for third-graders in basketball.

“Back in the day, there was one, maybe two, traveling teams in this geographic area,” said Pat Bauer, president of the West View Ross Athletic Association. “Now, there's six of them.”

The key to avoiding problems such as injuries and burnout is making sure sports are enjoyable, officials said. Hussey said the Tiny Sluggers and Little Sluggers divisions focus on instruction. During games, each player bats during each inning, and all players get to run the bases. No score is kept.

Bonenberger said i9 Sports' leagues, which operate one day a week, consist of a 30-minute practice that teaches a certain skill, followed by a game of 30 or 45 minutes.

“One of the greatest things about what we're doing is watching the development,” he said. “We keep the philosophy in mind, which is helping the kids have as positive an experience as possible, and then sort of trying as hard as we can to develop them with fun stuff. If it's fun, they're going to take the skills and continue to develop.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dgulasy@tribweb.com.

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