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BVA Legion hangs tough in difficult season

| Thursday, July 1, 2004

Tom Kelly gazed skyward at the ominous blanket of gray.

Standing at his third-base coaching spot Monday, Kelly knew the weather was about to provide yet another frustrating turn for his Belle Vernon American Legion team.

The Sidewinders had just captured the lead against first-place Uniontown when the skies indeed opened. The game was called and will have to be played from scratch.

"Yeah, it's frustrating," Kelly said. "Thing is, these kids haven't given up. They just kept plugging away. I've coached all these kids since freshmen baseball and every year, they kept coming back."

The Sidewinders have had to show persistence playing Legion for the first time in nearly a decade. Belle Vernon currently sits with 13 losses and just one win -- a forfeit by Farmington -- in Kelly's inaugural season.

The team forfeited their game Wednesday with California due to lack of players.

"You've got kids college age or younger and they're working or vacations are kicking in," Kelly stated. The other day, I called a pitcher up just home after he just got back from work," Kelly said. "I said, 'We've got a game tonight. Are you coming?' He said, 'Game• Oh yeah, I'll be there.'"

Before Wednesday's forfeit and the rainout versus Uniontown, Belle Vernon took Charleroi to the brink last Friday before losing a heartbreaker, 14-13.

"We're getting our shots in the arm like the Charleroi game," Kelly said. "If you have four or five bad shots and then one shot draws you back into the game."

Amazingly, the team is often heard joking with each other and keeping things light in what should be a rather dark dugout.

"We just try to keep it fun; we're all friends and there's lots of camaraderie," said Jesse Johnson, the team's cleanup hitter and admitted prankster. "Every once in awhile, we show glimmers of becoming a good team. Sometimes, the only way to keep things from getting worse is joking around."

Kelly acknowledges enjoyment on a losing team is rare, but he is not surprised.

"The high school team did not have a good season, so these kids haven't had much success to look forward to, but they realize baseball is a fun game," Kelly said. "If you can't have fun, it's not worth playing."

Playing is one thing, pitching is another. Starter Aaron Cieply has been forced to shoulder much of the load. That's a tough task in a league that demands nine innings with as many as five games a week.

It has been a challenge; it's a lot tougher pitching than in high school," Cieply said. "These teams have better hitters and every week you pitch at least three times. It's been fun and I enjoy playing in the summer, but it would be better if we won."

The Sidewinders have also battled injuries. Just when shortstop Doug Ivill returned to health, center fielder and leadoff hitter Mike Jurcevich re-aggravated a shoulder injury and is out for the year.

That's the blues of a Legion team that draws from just one school district.

"Next year, we should have a decent turnout from Colt and we're going to tap into that Perryopolis Area," Kelly said. "It means something when you have older kids coming back and playing for years. We don't have that yet because we're not established."

Belle Vernon Legion may just have to go the route of Farmington and forfeit their remaining games.

"A couple old timers came up to me and said, 'Boy, you had a tough game last night,'" Kelly said. "I said, 'What do you mean tough game• It's been a tough season.'"

Just when the clouds have opened up and poured on Kelly and company, he knows things are barely getting started.

"People have they were glad to see kids playing summer ball in Belle Vernon again. "I've had guys that played Legion ball (for the old Belle Vernon team) saying. 'Our kids are coming up and we're glad something is going to be there for them."

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