For years, Justin Ritter wondered what the community of Lakeside would be like with a youth baseball program. Today, his dream of bringing youth baseball to the community he calls home has blossomed into a reality greater than anything he could have imagined.
“As a travel baseball coach for the past four or five years, I’ve seen so many kids in our community who didn’t have the opportunity to play baseball due to its cost,” Ritter said. "There are so many kids out there whose parents simply can’t afford it. I believe that all kids should have the opportunity to be able to play baseball, whether their parents can afford it or not.”
Driven by his love for the game, Ritter began researching ways to bring a cost-free option to the youth in his community.
“Following the success of the Lakeside Youth Football Association, which started five or six years ago, [Lakeside Head Baseball Coach Leighton Hardin] and I wanted to find a way to keep youth baseball kids together instead of them splitting up and being on random travel teams until they reach high school.”
Witnessing the recent success of Lakeside’s Big Brother program, Ritter decided it was time to create the solution that Hot Springs needed.
“Coach Hardin started the Big Brother program back in November, which paired younger athletes with older kids on the high school baseball team to create relationships with them,” Ritter said. “When we saw that 60 kids had signed up for that program, we knew that we had the interest and community support to make this happen.”
In January, Ritter and his wife, Whitney, founded the Lakeside Youth Baseball Association, opening the doors for Garland County youth to enjoy the sport they love in the community they call home.
“When the Hot Springs Boys and Girls Club shut down, the only thing that kids from Lakeside and the surrounding areas could do was go to another town to play league ball,” Ritter said. “Kids have been leaving Hot Springs to go to Benton and Little Rock to practice and train and parents want those opportunities here for their children. While the city currently has plans to revamp the fields at the Boys and Girls Club in a few years, the community was still looking for a current solution and we felt like we could provide that.”
For Ritter—the father, husband, businessman, cattle farmer and baseball coach—finding the bandwidth to undertake such a monumental task was simple—baseball runs in his blood.
“I grew up playing baseball around Hot Springs and Bismarck and have followed the game all my life,” Ritter said. “It’s in my blood and in our family. My uncle was a professional player and helped start the Lakeside Baseball Association more than 15 years ago. We were fortunate to work it out with Lakeside’s administration over the winter for use of their facilities and, ultimately, getting the green light to launch this project.”
Since January, LYBA’s success has emitted shockwaves throughout the area, inspiring volunteers in other school districts to step up and get their communities involved. In just five months, Ritter estimates that the Association has provided more than 400 youth athletes across multiple school districts the opportunity to play the sport they love.
“When we launched the program back in January, I really only thought that we’d get enough for one or two teams,” Ritter said. “But as soon as we put it on social media, the response was overwhelming. We had 150 kids sign up from Lakeside School District alone. Soon, we began working with other schools—Ouachita, Malvern, Magnet Cove, Hot Springs, Fountain Lake, Mountain Pine and more—and before we knew it, we didn’t have just one or two teams, we had a league.”
With a growing number of participants comes the challenge of finding more fields to play on and Ritter is hard at work at finding a solution.
“Our biggest challenge right now is coordinating everything we do on one baseball and softball field,” Ritter said. “When you have this many teams wanting to practice on fields of their size, while also sharing the fields with their respective high school teams, it’s easy to see that we need more fields in Hot Springs. And we only plan on getting bigger. We are already looking into acquiring more fields and getting more volunteers. If we can put some hard labor into some local fields to get them into shape, we could have more access to fields while lowering our footprint on local schools' official fields.”
Although the Association currently caters to baseball, Ritter says it hasn’t deterred interest from young women looking to play ball close to home, too.
“This season, we’ve had three girls join us who really wanted to hone their skills,” Ritter said. “We have interest from schools wanting to create a youth softball association, too. I think the sky is the limit for what is possible here.”
To cap its successful first season, the Lakeside Youth Baseball Association will host one final tournament this weekend for all age groups with rings awarded to the top two finishers.
“Over the season, we were fortunate enough to raise enough funds to cover the expenses for our end-of-season tournament,” Ritter said. “With our remaining league funds, we purchased rings for our first- and second-place finishers. This has turned into something bigger than what I could have ever imagined.”
Ritter and his supporters are already hard at work planning for the organization’s bright future.
“First, we never could have done what we’ve done this year if it weren’t for the support of our parents and volunteers,” Ritter said. “If you count parent volunteers, even from other teams, there are a good 25 people helping make this happen. Our goal is to increase our participation to 20 area schools next year and we’ll need even more coaches and volunteers to make it happen. In August, we’ll start preparing for next season and have signups again before next spring.”
In a first season filled with many memories, one moment stands out to Ritter, validating his volunteerism.
“The biggest highlight of the year was seeing a kid who had never played baseball before get a hit,” Ritter said. “Seeing the smiles on kids’ faces and having fun is the only reason I’m doing what I’m doing.”
For more information on the Lakeside Youth Baseball Association, visit https://www.facebook.com/Lakeside-Youth-Baseball-Association-1896604487028882/.
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