By Tony Adams, Sports Editor
The Belton Youth Softball Association’s Centex Champs Division is not your typical softball division.
It’s a champion division!
The Centex Champs Division has been a part of BYSA since 2001. Since that time, so many great boys and girls have played in this league.
The league has four teams and the schedule is generally eight games long, normally on Thursday evenings.
“We have 51 players in our league this year divided almost equally among our 4 teams: Bandits, Indians, Cowboys, and Rangers,” Susie Marek said. “We have divided our teams up by age for safety. Our Bandits and Indians consist of our younger players and our older players play on the Cowboys and Rangers. Each team has at least 2 coaches.”
The league has a multitude of volunteers from the community, UMHB and BYSA. The field was a champion project by the community.
“The field was a community effort,” Scott Yearwood said. “We are blessed to have the support from the community that we have. The league gave $16,000.00 towards the field. Former BYSA president Dottie Faver gave the league money and the City of Belton helped write the grant to get the field. Drayton McLane hand-delivered the grant proposal to the Major League Baseball Foundation. The City of Belton has been in the forefront of supporting the special needs community. It was a complete team effort.”
The UMHB Baseball Team stepped up to volunteer their time again in 2015.
“The UMHB players have helped out a few times over the past several years,” Marek said. “When we approached the UMHB Athletic Director-Coach Randy Mann and head baseball coach Ben Shipp a couple of weeks ago about helping out at one of our games, they didn’t hesitate. The initial game we had scheduled for them to attend was canceled due to rain, but they were at the game the next week. It is so exciting for our players to have the UMHB Crusaders assist them during a game. Our Centex Champs see the UMHB players as role models and heroes…a college baseball player…how cool is that!”
“We are so blessed and fortunate to have UMHB in our backyard to support our players,” Yearwood said. “We have a wonderful community. They take an opportunity and let it shine.”
The Crusaders took to the field and enjoyed time with the players.
“I think it was a great thing for those kids to be able to participate in the game,” KJ Stark said. “Those kids taught me another lesson on how to love the game!”
“I loved spending time with so many amazing kids!” Emery Atkisson said. “It reinvigorated my love for the game. Seeing the smiles on their faces made it an even more memorable experience. Baseball is about having fun and it was a privilege to share that with the kids of the Champs League.”
“A truly humbling experience,” Rob Loewe said. “To see the joy in their faces when they get to round the bases was unbelievable.”
“I thought it was a great experience and opportunity,” Tripp Reeves said “I enjoyed getting to watch and interact with the kids as they enjoyed playing the game we all love. It was a real pleasure and I’m glad we were able to help with such a good organization.”
“We are so lucky to have a university to represent what we want our children to be around and inspire our kids,” Yearwood said. “The UMHB student-athletes make a positive impact on our children with special needs. Coach Shipp was very excited and very proud to be involved and plans to come back. He was very positive in creating schedule for the Centex Champs to go to the UMHB games and support each other.”
The efforts of the organization are certainly recognized. But when testimonies are heard from parents that have children that have benefitted from the league, what it stands for, what they deliver and the impact it has made, that’s where you really see the big picture.
Ethan Smith is one of those players that has benefitted.
“When I think of baseball season it makes me think of the word joy,” Ed Smith, Ethan’s father, said. “We hear that word a lot around Christmas. I know it sounds hokey, but I think there are quite a few parents that would agree with me. I know when my own son, Ethan, was a baby, baseball was not something that we ever thought he would play. Right after being born with a Median Facial Cleft as well as some other complications he was prematurely diagnosed with holoprosencephaly. We had a team of well respected doctors in at Children’s Medical City in Dallas tell my wife and I that Ethan would die within a year. They had to do a DNA test and send it off to California. They explained that it would be 30 days before we heard the results.”
Smith felt that the need was there to spend as much time as possible with Ethan.
“In some ways that was the worst month, but also the best month of our lives,” Smith explained. “I took off from work and literally spent as much time as I could with him, especially if I only had a year. As it turned out, he did not have that diagnosis. Once things calmed down the seizures started when he was about 18 months old. Needless to say I didn’t think he would ever want to play ‘real’ sports. He loved playing out in the front yard, but he wasn’t a big fan of ‘rules.’ Mom didn’t want him to play sports, because after the 10+ surgeries on his face she didn’t want him to have any more than he already needed to have!”
That’s when the option to join Centex Champs came to Smith’s attention.
“We signed him up with the Centex Champs about five years ago and I will never forget the look on his face,” Smith said. “When he was standing out on that field, it was like he was at Rangers Stadium, but he was as comfortable as if he was in our front yard. As he hit the ball on his very first at-bat his face was smiling like it was Christmas. He was full of joy. It was something more than just happiness or excitement.”
Ethan was not the only one who had the excitement. Many others around Ethan had that joy as well.
“As I watched the other players they also had the same looks on their faces,” Smith said. “For some of them, it can be physically difficult for them to be out their swinging or catching, but if you look closely at their faces you can see it. I think as parents of special needs children we often get so used to talking for our children that it becomes reflexive. I know if you were to ask any parent out there what their child thinks of baseball, they would all tell you that the kids love it. But you really don’t need to ask them. Just look closely at their faces. Look past some of their fierce looks, determination & concentration, past some of their looks of exertion & struggle, even past the joking around & goofy faces of some of the players and you will see it. It is joy, like Christmas morning. I know because when I see it on Ethan’s face, I feel it too.”
Smith is not alone in his experience. Marsha Petruska, mother of Rangers’ player TJ Petruska, feels that it is a league that lets the players strive for greatness every time they hit the diamond.
“I believe it encourages the players a lot to think they can do and achieve anything they set their mind to do,” Petruska said.
Beth Kimmel’s son Noah is approaching his 13th birthday and has multiple diagnoses, including schizencephaly and Chiari III (brain malformations). That doesn’t stop Noah from feeling like the star of moment.
“When Noah is walking toward home plate and everyone starts cheering and chanting his name, his face just lights up!” Kimmel said. “He absolutely loves that attention and encouragement. In other aspects of life, he’s usually the kid sitting on the sidelines, but here, he gets to be the star for a little bit.”
The Centex Champs also helps the parents communicate with one another in an environment that allows networking to take place.
“Not only is it an opportunity for players to be encouraged, but it is a blessing for the parents to be able to network with each other,” Yearwood said. “It’s a very positive social networking environment.”
Marek shares a passion for serving the community, along with Yearwood.
“Scott and I both have a passion for serving families that have children with special needs,” Marek said. “We look forward to baseball season every year, and we’re always sad when the season comes to an end. Our teams become like family. We get such joy from watching the players have the opportunity to play baseball like their peers and to watch the parents rejoice as their child hits the ball and runs a home run!
Logan, who is 20, has played in the Centex Champs League for 11 years.
“I know what it did for my husband and I when Logan started playing must do the same thing for many of our parents of players now,” Marek said. “Playing a sport such as baseball and being on a team is a way to rekindle a dream, a dream that was once shattered by the shock of having a child with a disability and all the dreams of watching your child being involved in sports and other activities fall by the wayside. Sports and other activities get replaced with numerous therapy appointments and doctor’s visits. What blesses my heart is to watch our families enjoy their child and provide an opportunity for them that other children and families have. It truly is a blessing and an honor to be a part of this league.”
One of the most recognizable names to emerge from the Centex Champs League is Belton Tigers junior varsity quarterback Tannor Yearwood. Tannor is one of the reasons that his father has been with the league since the outset in 2001, as Scott has been on the BYSA board of directors since that year. He also has served as vice president of BYSA for 3 ½ years.
“Tannor has been playing for the Centex Champs longer than Logan and Scott has been coaching almost since the beginning,” Marek said. “Scott was instrumental in advocating for our field. The field is accessible for wheelchairs and walkers and Scott was the one instrumental in making that happen which has increased opportunities for children with physical disabilities to play without difficulty of wheelchairs and walkers getting stuck in the dirt.”
The Centex Champs League is another reason why Belton is such a great place to live.