By Teddy Rydquist
Review Sports Contributor
Consisting of eight teams spanning six different age groups, the Orion Chargers Baseball Club has long been a pipeline for some of Lake Orion High School’s top talent during their developmental years.
Like nearly every other sporting activity in the United States, the organization has had to make alterations to their 2020 plans in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
On March 17, the Chargers’ hopes of starting their season soon were dealt a major blow when the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) announced the immediate suspension of all sanctioned tournaments.
“In light of the most-recent federal recommendations regarding COVID-19, USSSA has made the difficult decision to suspend the sanctioning of events in the United States and Canada until further notice,” Chief Executive Officer Donny DeDonatis III said in a prepared statement.
“This is for the health and safety of our players and our tournament personnel. USSSA will evaluate this decision weekly and determinations of when to resume sanctioning in each area of the country will be made in conjunction with state directors and their local government agencies … We look forward to facilitating the return of sanctioned competition for all as soon as possible.”
Formed in 1968 and headquartered in Viera, Florida, the USSSA held their first baseball World Series, now an annual event for ages five through 14, in 2004.
Consisting of more than 3.5 million member players throughout their history in the United States and Canada, teams participate in USSSA-sanctioned tournaments, earning points based on where they finish. Using this points system, teams can qualify to participate in the USSSA World Series.
To ensure high-levels of competition, USSSA State Directors also divide their members into four divisions. Using a model similar to the one in Major League Baseball, the “Major” division is the top competitive teams in the country, while the “AAA” division is typically more middle of the pack competitive squads, ranging down to the “A” division, made up almost exclusively of recreational teams.
While Mother Nature has been largely cooperative in 2020, the Chargers organization had already taken steps to prepare before the official USSSA announcement was handed down.
“Before the schools even stopped, we had suspended all practices and activities,” Chargers President and 11-and-under (11U) head coach Mike Skelton shared.
“Once the schools shutdown, that really made it official and a lot of the athletic facilities shutdown shortly after that.
“As far as the USSSA, I think they had to do what they did because they run tournaments all over the country and they start right about now, late-March, early-April. I know Donny (DeDonatis III) said they’re going to evaluate it week-by-week. We’re thinking April is probably shot, but we’re hoping we can get the boys back out there sometime in May.”
Charger teams of all levels participate in various tournaments throughout the state of Michigan, the Midwest, and even other areas of the country. The most prestigious trip, however, is the annual 12U voyage to Cooperstown Dreams Park in Otsego County, New York.
Spanning June 6-August 29, Cooperstown Dreams Park runs tournaments in 13 consecutive weeks and attracts some of America’s top 12-year-old talent to their hilly, scenic countryside. For example, long before he was winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award with the Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper played at Cooperstown as a 12-year-old catcher.
Many other recognizable sports figures have played in these same tournaments, including Odell Beckham, Jr., Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rizzo and Mike Trout.
With only a select number of spots for teams available, the trip to Cooperstown Dreams Park is often the culmination of years of preparation and planning for coaches and parents. While separate from the USSSA, the tournament announced the cancelation of their entire 2020 season on March 20, as well.
“In the best interest of our country, state, local community, local partners, umpires and most importantly, our employees, players and their families, whose health and safety we are obligated to protect, Cooperstown Dreams Park has deemed it necessary to cancel the 2020 season,” the business said in a statement released on their website.
Cooperstown Dreams Park is offering all registered teams a 100 percent refund. The complex, which features 115 barracks for players and coaches to stay on-site during their tournaments, has offered their facilities to the state of New York to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even with the suspension of all team-related activities and the cloudy immediate future, Skelton reminded Charger players there are ways to put this down time to use.
“We’re encouraging kids to get their repetitions in at home,” he said. “Hit the nets, our hitting coach, Casey Smith, has provided us with videos of drills the kids can do at home and we’ve shared those videos on our Chargers family Facebook page.
“This doesn’t stop the kids from playing catch, playing long toss, getting their work in at home.”
Skelton’s 11U team will participate exclusively in tournaments but other Charger teams, including Kevin Senko’s 8U squad and the 12U team coached by Mike Oliver, are members of the North Oakland Baseball Federation (NOBF).
The NOBF has suspended all operations, as well.