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Diamonds are this town’s best friend

NLYBS celebrates 25th anniversary season
A catcher for the Reds junior baseball team throws a ball back to the pitcher at Penn Meadows Park. The team was one of 83 signed up for the 2016 season, while 85 were formed this year for the North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball league’s 25th anniversary season. (photo by Shianne Fisher)

NORTH LIBERTY– Around a thousand area kids have their last at-bat or final pitch of the summer next week as North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball (NLYBS) wraps up its 25th anniversary season.
It’s a bittersweet end for not only the players, but also the countless parents and volunteers that flood Penn Meadows Park every weeknight for two months.
“When it’s over, you miss it. It’s such a community gathering spot,” said Rob Wagner, a former NLYBS parent, coach and board member, and now part-time umpire. “For parents and coaches, the amount of socialization that goes on is huge. It’s a big community builder.”
Started as a baseball-only club in 1993, the league quickly grew in numbers before adding softball, community partnerships, new fields and online registration to become the powerhouse program it is today.
“We’ve been here for a long time,” said league organizer Cindy Rundle. “We’re not just an organization that pops up and leaves but one that has really become a tried and true part of what it means to be a community.”
In 2005, a year after her son entered the league, Rundle and her husband Scott began volunteering with the program. Today, they hold nine of the 19 positions on the NLYBS Board of Governance.
“As parents age out and children age out, leadership has to step up,” said Wagner. “We’ve kind of seen that all the way through, except for Scott and Cindy. They might not blow their own horn but I’m going to blow it a little bit. Even though their son is done, they’re still doing community volunteerism.”
Rundle said league milestones, such as raising money for the new sports pavilion installed last year, are what kept her involved.
“It’s kind of whatever job needed to be done I did,” she said. “Before you know it it’s been a really long time.”
She praised all the volunteers, including over 250 coaches, who make the league run each year, but noted they’re always in need of board members.
“It is very rewarding to go out there and see the kids playing,” she added.
A total 984 players and 85 teams signed up this year, nearly beating the record 999 set last year.
“It just about killed me,” said Rundle. “It was like, couldn’t I get just one more child? That drove me nuts.”
She noted, when taking Fall Ball into account, the league actually had 1,139 sign-ups in 2016– double what it was 10 years ago. Coralville and Solon teams also play with the NLYBS junior and senior teams.
“At first, all the towns were so small that nobody could run their own program,” said Wagner. “But as we grew, some of the growing pains were like, well we got too many teams already.”
He noted background checks and training for coaches were a huge plus for the league.
“The thing we’ve always said is we don’t turn kids away. We want every kid to play who wants to play,” said Rundle. “Whether that means we give him a scholarship because of money or just making sure we have the facilities, the fields, so we can handle the large number.”
In 2016, the league distributed $3,119 for roughly 55 scholarships. Family discounts are often given for multiple players.
While NLYBS families donated $925 toward the sports pavilion during online registration last season, the majority of financial support comes from sponsors. Roughly 70 local businesses and organizations donated this year.
“As we’ve grown the sponsorship has grown tremendously,” said Rundle. “The business community supporting us has made it more of that community league.”
Other partners include Diamond Dreams of Coralville, whose employees help with skills development throughout the year, and the Positive Coaching Alliance, which builds character and teamwork for parents and coaches.
“I know there was a period there where people thought we were just a rec league and not ‘real’ ball,” said Rundle. “But a rec league means focusing on skill development, just not paying as much attention to the scoreboard. Those skills come first.”
The City of North Liberty also became an official partner in March 2013, with an agreement approved by city council regarding field use, maintenance and program operations.
“We went from five fields to six fields to like 11 fields,” Wagner said of the partnership. He noted each field costs around $60,000.
“The North Liberty Parks Department did all the work,” he added.
Dick Meade, who sold the 18 acres much of the park is on to the city in 1983, said he remembers the very first ball field constructed.
“They built a ballpark right away,” he recalled.
Meade eventually sold another 19 acres to the city by 1990.
His sale paved the way for the nine fields now dotting Penn Meadows, as well as the new sports pavilion, which the North Liberty parks crew helped construct. The building includes a concession stand, bathroom and picnic area and also serves as a storm shelter.
“That’s one of our biggest fundraisers, the concession stand,” said Rundle.
Concession stands profits went from $10,000 in 2015 to $14,000 in 2016, with the addition of the second facility. Rundle said the old stand will continue to be open for chips, candy and drinks, but that most of the food will be served out of the pavilion.
“Parents don’t want to stand in line for something to eat and miss the game,” she added. “Now we can move people through faster.”
She noted the league is still accepting brick purchases to support its $250,000 cost share of the pavilion. For $50 to $1,000, individuals or businesses can sponsor a brick with their name and/or a photo engraved.
Every donation makes a difference, she added. “It’s giving kids a constructive pastime, other than what they might find elsewhere.”
For Wagner, the league provides as much nostalgia for the adults as it does for their children.
“That’s what I’ll never forget,” said Wagner. “There’s maybe a little trophy in a box someplace I’ll see every so often, but it’s about the amount of nights we were there and the good times we had.”
Fore more information about the North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball league, visit eteamz.com/nlybs.