Cannons fire up for CT debut

The Valley Baseball League is coming to Jefferson County.

A summer league for college players located in the Northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the Valley Baseball League was formed in 1923 and became NCAA-sanctioned in 1961.

The just-completed 2012 season saw 12 teams competing. Six teams were in both the North Division and South Division of the league. And now one of them — the erstwhile Luray Wranglers — is coming to Shenandoah Junction to play its summer 2013 games at Jefferson High and Sager Field. Luray’s petition to transfer its franchise to Jefferson County was approved by the league about two weeks ago.

City of Charles Town officials met Tuesday with representatives from the new Charles Town Cannons baseball team, which will begin playing at Jefferson High School at the start of the 2013 season. From left, Charles Town Mayor Peggy Smith, Cannons co-owner Don Fuller, Jefferson High School baseball coach, John Lowery, Cannons President Brett Fuller, team marketing representative Stacy Locke and Joe Cosentini, Charles Town city manager.

It will be the first league team to play outside of Virginia, said team president Brett Fuller.

“Charles Town was a logical fit for a valley league team,” Fuller said. “Getting a team in the panhandle is a big move.”

The newly christened “Charles Town Cannons” will welcome a roster of amateur players who have collegiate eligibility remaining (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors) from all levels — NCAA Division I, II, III; NAIA; Christian Association, and junior colleges.

Players on each of the league’s 12 teams are housed in the surrounding area and help their teams with clinics for youngsters and other community-minded functions.

Wooden bats are used by the teams.

A look at the divisional alignment for the 2012 season had Luray, Winchester, Front Royal, Haymarket, Strasburg and Woodstock in the North and Waynesboro, Harrisonburg, Rockbridge, Covington, Staunton, and New Market in the South.

The Charles Town Cannons will be in the North Division.

Now a not-for-profit league, the Valley Baseball League has all 12 of its franchises as individual not-for-profit organizations.

Each team plays a 44-game unbalanced schedule with more games against divisional rivals than teams from the other side.

After the regular season is ended in late July, a fast-paced playoff system is instituted. The team winning the post-season playoffs is declared the league champion.

The Harrisonburg Turks were the 2012 league champions.

Luray finished the past summer in fifth place in the South Division and was not involved in the postseason because the top four finishers in each division’s regular season standings qualified for the playoffs.

Losing their last seven games of the summer left the 2012 Wranglers with a 16-26 record.

When the franchise had Mike Bocock as its head coach for nearly a decade, it won league championships in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Bocock was removed as Wranglers’ head coach during the 2012 season.

Fuller said he was inspired to bring the team to this area because of the successful baseball career of Jefferson High coach John Lowery.

He has brought a rich tradition of baseball to this area, Fuller said. “He is a baseball icon. To have his support means so much to bringing the Valley League to Charles Town and to Jefferson County and to the panhandle.”

Lowery will serve on the team’s board of directors.

Steve Sabins will be the team’s new general manager and recruiting coordinator. Sabins actually was the head coach with the Winchester Royals last season when that franchise had the league’s best regular season record.

Bobby Rauh will be the Cannons’ head coach. Rauh was an assistant coach under Sabins at Winchester in 2012.

The newly-moved Cannons will play their home games at Sager Field on the grounds of Jefferson High. Since bleacher space and fixed seating is limited at that facility, some measures to increase the number of permanent seats will probably be made.

In another Valley League franchise move related to Luray’s coming to Jefferson County, the Haymarket team will move to Aldie next summer and play its games at Champe High School.

Jefferson High graduates have played in the league. Jeff Reynolds, Brian Collins, and Brett Moreland have spent summers in the league. Shepherd’s contribution to the league’s rosters have included Nathan Minnich, Matt McCarty, Nash Hutter, Josh Wenderoth, Anthony Jackson, and Collins.

Jefferson High baseball coach John Lowery and his son, John Lowery, Jr., have both been head coaches for the Winchester franchise in the recent past.

Winchester had four players from West Virginia University on its roster this summer.

The teams in the far-flung league use I-81 as their main route of travel. The Charles Town team will be more than three hours from Covington, located near Clifton Forge on I-64 in west-central Virginia.

North Division teams only had to travel to both Covington and Rockbridge one time during the 2012 season.

League rosters are limited to 26-28 players and teams add and delete players throughout all of the 44-game schedule. If players are involved in NCAA or NAIA playoffs, they could miss games when the season begins during the final days of May or the first week in June.

Each league franchise tries to heavily involve the community’s businesses and surrounding area commerce, especially with advertising signs on outfield fences, sponsorship of particular home games, and offering merchandise and gift certificate giveaways during the summer.

Average attendance at Luray games was between 200 and 275 people in 2012, while Winchester often had crowds of between 425 and 550 people.

Many of the franchises also use high school playing fields as their home grounds. All of the teams play on lighted fields.

Most of the games start at 7 p.m. Specific dates are reserved for make-up games and each team has off days built into its schedule. There is an all-star game played against the Cal Ripken League during a mid-season break.

Season tickets are available and civic organizations along with non-profit groups in other league cities have offered small blocks of free or reduced-priced tickets to fans.

The Cannons will be firing this summer.

Jefferson County will have its first Valley Baseball League franchise.

And some of the players coming in will no doubt have professional baseball careers in front of them. And some could even reach the Major Leagues like a number of Valley League alumni already have.

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