Let the games begin!
The start of each Little League season often elicits a heightened level of nostalgia.
With spring in the air, youth of all ages and skills partake in America’s favorite pastime, testing their mettle on the mound, at the plate and in the field.
Pitches are thrown. Bats are swung. Balls are caught. Games are won or lost.
And along the way, life lessons, sportsmanship and lasting friendships are cultivated.
For Land O’ Lakes Little League, this year’s Opening Day festivities took on an added significance: The organization celebrated its 50th anniversary on Feb. 27, at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, off Collier Parkway.
The organization actually formed back in 1967 at the Land O’ Lakes Community Center (now Heritage Park) off U.S. 41, but it didn’t receive its first Little League charter until 1971.
The local league has come a long way since its initial start-up — boasting upwards of 800 boys and girls, ages 4 to 16, playing baseball and softball across 10 fields.
And, the league found a way kick off its semicentenary season in memorable fashion, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bounce houses and face painting, and other kid-centric interactive activities were noticeably absent due to coronavirus precautions.
The large ballfield took center stage in the league’s season-opening event.
Teams from all age divisions were spread across the infield and outfield, signaling the league’s staying power and sustained growth.
First pitches were accurately thrown from veteran baseball players, as well softball Little League players.
Local players sang the national anthem and read the league pledge.
There was the unveiling, too, of a framed 50th anniversary “golden ticket” issued and signed Little League International Headquarters, which is based in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Of course, there was plenty of action.
Ballgames were played from morning to night.
It was a special day that was long-awaited by Little Leaguers, such as 16-year-old Damien Lampe, who caught a ceremonial first pitch from left-hander Max Folkman.
Partaking in the longstanding pregame ritual is something Lampe won’t soon forget, given that it came during the celebration of the league’s 50th season. “Throughout the years I’ve been here and I’ve seen lots of people catch (the first pitch), so it’s kind of cool,” he said.
Lampe — like countless others — weren’t able enjoy the full Little League experience last spring, as the season was cut drastically short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was itching at home just to do something baseball-related, whether it was just watching it or like playing on video games, just something,” he said.
Lampe plays his fair share of travel ball and varsity ball at Land O’ Lakes High School, but the Land O’ Lakes Little League experience also holds its share of significance.
He was a part of league history as a member of the 2019 all-star senior team that won a state crown and reached regionals. The team’s banner is proudly displayed along the fence line of one of the park’s concession stands.
“That was a great group of kids,” Lampe recalled. “I really bonded with them and felt really close to them, and we’re all still good friends now, and it was just so much fun to travel around and play with them.”
Lampe started in the organization when he was 4, playing T-ball. This will be his final year, before aging out of the league.
“It’s a great community,” Lampe said of Land O’ Lakes Little League. “I mean, I know, I’ve been here for so long I know almost all these kids that play. It’s fun. It’s just great to come out here and have fun.”
He also commended the countless volunteers and 20-plus board members who keep the league running smoothly: “They work so hard to keep this place clean and professional, and it’s really nice.”
It’s about more than wins and losses
The beauty of the organization is it’s a recreational format.
It welcomes the novice player that may never make an all-star team or play high school ball, to others who have the potential to earn college scholarships and maybe play professionally someday.
“I think every kid should play Little League,” said Land O’ Lakes Little League President Gary Gwinn, whose five children have taken part.
“The atmosphere of Little League is — the kids come here, they’re out here to have fun, they make new friends — friends for life — and, there’s stuff that’s going to have happen at this Little League that’s going to last forever.”
Gwinn joined the organization 18 years ago.
The league is about more than wins, losses or the number of runs scored, he said.
Its focus is on playing fair, having the opportunity to play and developing traits that are important both on and off the field, he said.
“We’re here to give these kids structure, to teach them sportsmanship, just how to be a responsible person,” Gwinn said.
One of his most gratifying experiences, is guiding those kids that may not be as gifted athletically “and making them realize and believe in themselves,” he said.
“I’m a true believer in Little League,” Gwinn said.
Fostering a family atmosphere
League secretary Monica Woods offers a similar upbeat outlook about the popular youth baseball and softball sports organization.
“Every day that you’re up here, you’re going to see somebody get their first hit,” she said.
“You’re going to see a boy or a girl that got a chance to pitch and they might struggle, and then something clicks and their coach will say the right thing, and they’ll start throwing strikes.”
Woods’ involvement in Land O’ Lakes Little League has come full circle.
Her husband and son, Hayden, are now coaching a team in the league together.
Hayden recently aged out after a long run in the league, but still wanted to stay involved as a volunteer.
“It’s sad that he’s not playing, but I still get to see him in a different light, he’s doing what he loves and he’s out here with his dad, and it’s still a family thing,” Woods said.
The parent and volunteer still looks back on memories of her son and group of friends longing to head to the Little League for practices and games: “This was just like their mall. They would just come here and hang out.”
League vice president Alissa Canter also remains heavily involved, despite her two sons graduating from the league.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” Canter said. “I mean, the progression of seeing them from starting at T-ball all the way up to the big senior field here, and the all-star experiences are just amazing. It’s a lot of great memories, great experiences for the kids, and it’s like your family away from home.”
That’s the hope for new league parents like Jackie Boyett.
Boyett played in the organization’s softball league when she was growing up.
Now her 4-year-old daughter, Jordan, has joined a T-ball league.
And, like many other players, the little girl had her own personal fan club at the ballpark — with her mom, grandparents, aunt and uncle to cheer her on.
Some of Boyett’s best memories of Land O’ Lakes Little League revolve around opening day.
And, now, there’s a new generation in her family to keep that tradition alive.
“I’m happy for (Jordan) to experience it,” Boyette said.
Published March 03, 2021