West Point Little Leaguers, Marines all winners
Clayton Hefner and Adam Derco thought they were on their way to help move a refrigerator, when suddenly their parents steered their cars toward the West Point Little League baseball fields.
The two 20-year-olds, both Hempfield Class of 2011 graduates, grew up together and joined the Marine Corps, assigned to the same battalion, which will soon be deployed to Afghanistan.
The pair were called in front of a group behind a backstop on a field and were surprised by Clayton's father, Chris.
He presented T-shirts to one T-ball team and one rookie team with “We support Adam Derco, USMC” and “We support Clayton Hefner, USMC” emblazoned on the backs.
A few weeks earlier, Chris Hefner started the Patriot Program to boost sponsorships for the league's team, honoring a service member instead of a business on the backs of the players' T-shirts.
“It sort of evolved from me just doing it for my son,” he said.
The players, who ranged in age from 4 to 8 from Hempfield, Greensburg and Unity, will act as penpals to the Marines while they're overseas.
“This way, the league wins, the military person wins, and the kids get an idea of community service,” Chris Hefner said.
The presentation and show of support took Hefner and Derco both by surprise.
“I was shocked. I felt honored because I basically grew up here every summer,” Clayton Hefner said.
Both Marines received many well wishes from the players' parents and league organizers that turned up for the short presentation of the T-shirts.
“I think it's going to be great for their morale,” said Anthony Derco, Adam's father. “Being away from home in a foreign country is tough enough. Having that support from home is going to be a big help.”
His son played baseball from age 4 until 16 with Youngwood's recreation program, which is starting interleague play this year with West Point, where Clayton Hefner played for the same amount of time.
Both men also played baseball in their late teens for the American Legion.
“(Clayton) had the opportunity to play college baseball, but he wasn't ready to go to college,” Chris Hefner said.
Adam Derco decided on the Marine Corps after he realized he wanted to follow in his uncle's footsteps to become a trooper with state police, which gives preference to veterans, Chris Hefner said.
Both are lance corporals preparing for seven-month tours of duty with the Second Battalion, 8th Marines Regiment and recently returned to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., preparing to head overseas.
League President Fred Aiello said the idea came a little close to the deadline to sponsor other T-shirts, but he hopes participation increases next year.
General donations for the Patriot Program or billboards for local service members can still be sponsored for the season by visiting the league's website at leaguelineup.com/westpoint.
Leagues in Ligonier and Bullskin have expressed interest in similar sponsorship programs, Chris Hefner said.
After spending so much time on the Hempfield diamonds, Clayton Hefner said he's glad he'll be thought of during games while he's thousands of miles away.
“It's nice to have the baseball community behind me,” he said. “It'll still have a part of me back here while I'm gone.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or email@example.com.