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Windermere Observer Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 6 months ago

FORECAST: Dr. Phillips Little League looks to grow

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The league is growing in attendance, but has found itself at a crossroads as it waits for the development of a new facility to call home.
by: Troy Herring Sports Editor

In the Dr. Phillips community, there’s a place that celebrates America’s pastime. In the fall and spring, boys and girls flock to the fields of Dr. Phillips Little League to participate in what has become a rite of passage for many youngsters.

The games of baseball and softball have thrived at these ballparks and have offered a place for the community’s children to enjoy their sport.

However, although the institution is still going strong, the league is facing new changes, both big and small, and is at a crossroads of sorts — the biggest of which includes future plans of relocating to new fields.

 

FINDING A FUTURE HOME

DPLL has called its current fields — at 7000 Dr. Phillips Blvd. — home since 1995, when the league first made arrangements to lease the land from Dr. Phillips Charities for $1 a year.

The deal sounds amazing — and in a way it is. But unlike the other Little League ball parks in the area, DPLL is required to pay for everything — including maintenance, supplies and so on. Almost all league parks are paid for and operated by Orange County.

“It does put us at a cost disadvantage,” said Matt Grant, who sits on the DPLL board. “If you do a cost comparison and you look at the fees that we charge compared to the other Little Leagues, our fees are significantly higher than any of the other Little Leagues in our district.”

The high cost forces the league to raise membership prices close to $200 per family, compared to the $150 and less that other leagues offer up.

Along with the costs, another reason for DPLL to seek a new home is that Dr. Phillips Charities has decided to not renew the league’s lease on the land. However, currently, there are no plans for the land itself or a timetable that has been put on the league.

“I don’t even know if the lease has been extended in writing … if they are extending it in writing, then it’s kind of season by season — they are unwilling to make any long-term commitment to us staying,” Grant said. “That said, they’ve demonstrated the commitment to us continuing to play. I don’t think anybody feels like they’re going to pull the plug without us having another option.”

 

DOWN IN THE MUCK

Although there are nerves that has come with not knowing what’s to come, Dr. Phillips Charities have put forward an effort to see that the league eventually finds a home. 

“On Nov. 27, 2017, Dr. Phillips Charities matched Rotary of Dr. Phillips’ $5,000 contribution to Dr. Phillips Little League for their field project,” said Ken Robinson, Dr. Phillips Charities president/CEO. “We look forward to the day when Dr. Phillips Little League has its permanent home at the Dr. P. Phillips Community Park with maintenance paid for through the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department.”

Along with the money, the charity donated 2.5 acres adjacent to Dr. P. Phillips Community Park, which sits five miles south of DPLL’s current location.

The plans started in 2014, and then in 2016 the league, Orange County Parks and Recreation and Dr. Phillips Charities officially announced they were ready to begin work on creating the new ballparks.

After years of planning and getting everything together, the league finally would move to the new ballparks. But that never happened — all because of the location being next to a lake.

“Long story short, there was ‘muck’ — that was the technical term that was used, because the land that was allocated for the fields, you couldn’t build on it,” said Todd Hockenberry, the league’s former president and county liaison. “Nobody in the county was willing to make the investment, because there would have been a lot more budget, a lot more time, and it didn’t make any sense to develop land that was not appropriate for fields.”

If the plan had still gone through as scheduled, those at DPLL would have had a shiny, new $4.8 million facility — featuring three ballfields — to utilize before the start of the spring 2018 season.

 

ANOTHER OPTION

Although the plans fell through, there’s another option currently in the works. 

During a public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 18, the Orange County Planning and Zoning Commission discussed the massive O-Town West project by Unicorp National Developments — which included some exciting news.

“They’re going through the zoning process approved by the county, and right now, that development includes new fields for Dr. Phillips Little League,” Hockenberry said.

In the northwest corner of the property, four new fields that will sit on six acres of land are planned to offer up the league’s new home. Originally the development planned for the space to be utilized as a three-acre park.

With the new facilities in the works — which will be overseen by the county — there’s a collective sigh of relief floating around the league, as it seems to have found a place to call its own.

“It would be a physical plant and a significant improvement,” Hockenberry said. “I think it’s more in the residential area, near where more of our players are coming from these days. I also think financially it definitely puts the league on firm footing.”

 

SOFTBALL GETS A BOOST

Despite the levels of uncertainty faced by the league, registration is up among athletes — especially those looking to play softball, said Lee Liddick, who oversees the softball program.

In the fall alone, registration for softball saw a 19% spike. It was particularly higher in the younger age range.

Part of the reason could be attributed to the league moving its program from Dr. P. Phillips Community Park to the little-league facility — which has a single softball field — in the fall.

“It’s been a while since softball has been back at the complex, but we decided to move the majority of it back,” Liddick said. “There was a lot of people who complained about the additional drive, way down Apopka-Vineland to get to the park.”

“It would be a physical plant and a significant improvement. I think it’s more in the residential area, near where more of our players are coming from these days. I also think financially it definitely puts the league on firm footing.”

— Todd Hockenberry

Now that the league has brought the softball team back to its facilities, a variety of upgrades now have to be done to get the field up to “softball code,” Liddick said.

The biggest needs are a new fence in the outfield and lights so that teams can play at night. For both issues, Grant and Liddick said they had approached some businesses about donating a fence and lights, but so far, everything has fallen through.

While the league continues to seek funding to get those two big situations fixed, the move back to the facility — along with a stronger social-media game — have helped push the softball program into the forefront.

The added forward nudge also has led to Liddick to advocate for another age group to add to the existing roster.

“We’re making a big push to start the juniors back, which is 14U,” Liddick said. “We had six girls that would have aged out of our programs — they wouldn’t have had any place to go. The majority of them wouldn’t have played softball, or they would have gone over and joined Windermere.”

But if the fence can’t be installed in time, those games will end up being played at Dr. P. Phillips Community Park instead, because junior team games require proper field dimensions.

While Liddick looks for funding, there are more plans to promote softball. He is organizing a softball day at UCF in the spring while hosting a three-day clinic — bringing in coaches and helping to raise money for improvements around the ballpark. The funding and additions to the parks will help the league, which in turn also will help the league accomplish its goal of giving children and teens a place to play the sport they love.

“I just hope that the girls continue to enjoy themselves,” Liddick said. “Rec ball is a different animal — some people like it, some people don’t — but there’s a lot of girls out there that we are trying to touch and get them out running around. The relationships that they can build by playing softball is key, as well. We want to continue to build a program that will grow.”

Troy Herring is the sports editor at the West Orange Times and Windermere Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Mount Olive (BS '12) and the University of Alabama (MA '16)....

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