About three years ago, Pat Killeen thought his in-house Schererville 9-and-under baseball team had the potential to be unbeatable.
Then half the kids left the team for full-time travel teams.
"The president at the time was going to make a change, then all of a sudden they're playing for the Shockers," Killeen said. "I mean, which is a good thing. It gave the opportunity to bring in some kids that were in house ball that wanted to play."
Now as a 12U team, the group that replaced the full-time kids who left won the Cal Ripken state championship July 8 and just wrapped up playing in the Ohio Valley Cal Ripken Regional. Tomorrow the team travels to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Cal Ripken Experience.
"It took them three years, but they won state," Killeen said. "That group (who left for travel ball) can't say they did."
KEEPING UP WITH THE TRAVEL KIDS
Killeen has been with the Schererville Baseball League, which is affiliated with Cal Ripken Baseball, for five years, three of them as president.
Unlike full-time travel teams, the all-star teams from the SBL are made up entirely of players who live in Schererville and play in the SBL.
He said while more and more travel teams are coming to the region, he has seen about three groups of kids make the move from in-house to full-time travel baseball.
He said some players will also leave when they turn 13 or 14 and hit Babe Ruth age to go seek out competitive full-time travel teams. He added that sometimes those players come back.
Part of the reason not as many kids are leaving, Killeen argues, is because of the all-star and travel options that Cal Ripken Baseball offers.
"We play travel teams, and we hang right with every team, and we're just a little ol' in-house team," Killeen said. "Just because you're full-time travel doesn't mean anything. We hang with them."
WHAT'S MAKING LITTLE LEAGUES LITTLE
These travel teams are options local Little Leagues don't really offer. Little League has a rule that says it can't promote other leagues. That means it has only its all-stars tournament for the better players.
Steve Burse, president of the Munster Little League, says the league has shrunk from about 600 kids in the early 2000s to 480 kids last year. But, he's quick to point out that that could be for a variety of reasons.
"Clearly the numbers are down, but I don't believe it's a baseball to baseball number," Burse said. "I think it's youth sports overall in general have increased.
"I don't know that we even have data that would support that it is travel ball that has caused that. Clearly competition has caused all these leagues to reduce in sizes."
Burse has been president of Munster Little League for the past two years. Another change he noticed as president is that a number of years ago, several communities converted from Little League to Cal Ripken Baseball programs.
Now the only "big" Little League programs in the 14-team District 2, according to Burse, are Dyer, Highland and Munster.
Dyer sent a 12-year-old team to state Thursday, and it also hosted the age 9-10 state championship this year.
The biggest difference between the two youth programs is that Cal Ripken offers kids ages 11 and 12 the opportunity to play on a field with 50 feet from the pitcher's mound to home plate and 70 feet between each base. Little League is 46 and 60.
"A lot of them want to do the 50-70, but their leagues won't allow it," Killeen said. "A lot of them like to come and play Schererville. We can always find games because they're like, 'Ah, our kids want to play leadoffs.'"
THE HYBRID OPTION
Killeen's team, and several other Cal Ripken programs in the area, participate in Anthony Belmonte's Chicagoland Sunday Baseball League. While it is a travel league, it requires each team to have all of its players play in their hometown house league also.
"The main reason was to keep house league players inside their house league," Belmonte said. "A lot of the better house league players were leaving their house league to join full-time travel teams, because they were looking for what they would consider being better competition."
The more than 300 teams in Belmonte's league play 10 games and also have the option of a Memorial Day tournament and Wednesday games. Teams in this league classify as part-time travel teams.
"I get a lot of feedback, 'Thank you for what you are doing. Thank you for supporting the house leagues,'" Belmonte said. "It seems that it fills this void between house league and full-time travel."