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For the love of the game

Sawyer Deshong, 3, kicks the ball into the net during a recent Lil’ Kickers practice at the soccer fields at Laura Doerr Park in Jefferson Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Knoch soccer, SR baseball teach game to beginners

Bill Dillon remembers well the role baseball played during his youth.

“My dad introduced me to the game, taught me everything. If it wasn't for him and the friends I made playing ball, I wouldn't have the passion for the game that I have now.”

Dillon now helps children learn the basics of the sport as head coach of Team Dillon, one of five T-ball squads within the Slippery Rock Area Baseball Association. His 5-year-old son, Cooper, is on the team, which is for players age 6 and younger.

Members of Team Hines, from left, Parker Click, Reed Taggart, Cason Krenke, Ensley Paxton, Ella Fetsko, Brooklyn Paxton, Jonathan Massella and Emersyn Hines are ready to go for a recent Slippery Rock T-ball game. Submitted Photo

“I love seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces,” Dillon said. “Cooper loves it and is developing the same passion for the game that I and my dad have.”

Teaching the fundamentals of any sport lays the foundation for growth.

“We want the T-ball experience to be grounded in fun, fitness and fundamentals,” said Mike Johnson, president of the association. “Our goal is to grow the love for the game with young people.”

Registration fee for Slippery Rock T-ball was $50 this year.

“Each player is expected to bring a glove, bat and helmet,” said Brett Hines, another coach within the association. “We provide the baseballs, use of the fields and a jersey.”

One of Hines’ players is his 4-year-old daughter, Emersyn. Girls who end up playing softball often get their start in T-ball.

Practices begin in April. Due to inclement weather, the first few are often held indoors at the Slippery Rock Elementary gym.

“There are 13 games on each team's schedule,” said Dillon. “Once the games start, we're playing twice per week most of the time and it's hard to get together for practices. From late April on, it's usually just games.”

Keeping the attention of young children is a challenge.

Lydia Durrett is a coach with Knoch Soccer's Lil' Kickers, for children ages 3 and 4. She previously lived in New Jersey, where she coached young children in lacrosse and that experience has aided her with instructing eight players this spring.

“You want to limit the time the kids are sitting still as much as possible,” she said. “Whatever I'm trying to teach them, I find a way to turn it into a game. If kids know they are playing a game, they seem to stay into it longer.”

Registration fee for Lil’ Kickers is $55.

“All they need to bring with them is a soccer ball, and we give them a T-shirt at the first practice,” Durrett said.

Dillon, who has nine players on his team, has some help in Slippery Rock, where T-ball teams each have at least one assistant coach.

“I'm lucky because I have three assistant coaches working with me,” he said. “If we have one of the coaches working with just two or three kids, it seems to help them remain focused. So we split it up.

“At the start, we work on throwing, hitting and catching,” Dillon said. “It's all about getting them to learn the fundamentals of the game, and we keep them engaged.

“For games, we pitch to the kids at the start (of each at-bat) because we want them to be able to hit live pitching by the end of the season,” he added. “If they are unable to hit three pitches, that’s when we bring the tee out.”

To maximize each player’s opportunity to improve, outs are not kept track of in Slippery Rock. Each player bats in each half inning and plays in the field during the other.

While players in older age groups are put on teams and play games during which the score is kept, Lil' Kickers practice once per week for 45 minutes at the soccer fields at Laura Doerr Park in Jefferson Township. Eight practice sessions are held.

“We have 37 players split into four groups for Lil' Kickers,” said Megan Mlikan, Knoch Soccer's in-house commissioner. “There are no games played at that level because we want the kids to first develop the skills they need.

“Many of the youngest players are younger brothers or sisters whose siblings have already taken part. It's nice to see the families recycle.”

Brandon and Andrea Coleman, of Cabot, have a son, Grant, who started playing soccer at U6 a few years ago.

“We didn't know about Lil' Kickers then,” said Brandon. “But from going to Grant's practices, we learned what it was about and when our daughter, Genevieve, was old enough, we signed her up.”

Genevieve is now playing U6 soccer.

“The Lil' Kickers program is a good introduction to soccer, but it is also a good way for a child to get social interaction with other kids,” Andrea said.

“It was a lot of fun,” added Brandon. “It gives kids a chance to get out there and see if there is any interest in soccer they can build on.”

While T-ball in Slippery Rock is strictly in the spring, Lil’ Kickers also holds practices in the fall.

Learning the basic fundamentals is a necessity in any sport, but teaching humility and gratitude goes a long way in shaping a child’s values and personality.

“I make a point to tell the kids to thank whoever brought them to that day's practice or game,” Dillon said. “Whether it's mom, dad, grandparents, a friend, neighbor … baseball is so pure and so fun, to have someone take the time to bring them to enjoy the game, that's very important.”

Tami Ritenour of Slippery Rock has twin boys — Ethan and Easton — currently playing T-ball.

“I’ve known Bill (Dillon) all my life,” Ritenour said. “He’s a great coach, gets the kids involved and is very enthusiastic.

“This is our second year in the league and the boys love it. They couldn’t wait for it to start up again. Our boys don’t have any other brothers or sisters, and it’s cool to see them form relationships with the other kids. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Sawyer Deshong, 3, practices with soccer coach Lydia Durrett during a recent Lil’ Kickers practice at Laura Doerr Park’s soccer fields. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Leo Leturgey, 3, practices kicking the ball during a recent Lil’ Kickers practice at Laura Doerr Park’s soccer fields. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Elliott Chase, 3, practices kicking the soccer ball during a recent Lil’ Kickers practice at Laura Doerr Park’s soccer fields in Jefferson Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Leo Leturgey, 3, practices kicking the ball with soccer coach Lydia Durrett during a recent Lil’ Kickers practice at Laura Doerr Park’s soccer fields in Jefferson Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Leo Leturgey, 3, left, gets the soccer ball around Bronson Friedman during a Lil’ Kickers practice at Laura Doerr soccer fields. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Leah Olsen, 4, kicks the ball into the goal during a Lil’ Kickers practice at Laura Doerr soccer fields. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Elliott Chase, 3, practices kicking the ball into the goal during a Lil Kickers practice at Laura Doerr soccer fields on Tuesday, May 7. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Leo Leturgey, 3, practices kicking the ball with soccer Coach Lydia Durrett during a Lil’ Kickers practice at Laura Doerr soccer fields. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Members of Team Hines, from left, Emersyn Hines, Brooklyn Paxton and Ensley Paxton take a moment during a recent Slippery Rock T-ball game. Submitted Photo
Members of Team Dillon show their team spirit following a recent Slippery Rock T-ball game. Submitted Photo
Team Dillon, left, one of five Slippery Rock T-ball teams, shows sportsmanship along with their opponent from West Sunbury following a recent game. Submitted Photo

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