Valley League adds another franchise to growing mix

Charlottesville team will replace Charles Town as newest organization in ’15

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION – The Charles Town Cannons are no longer the new kids on the block in the Valley Baseball League.

While the local franchise is in the heart of the playoff picture with two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Cannons will surely be adding trips to Charlottesville next year as summer collegiate baseball returns to the backyard of the University of Virginia for the first time since 1974.

Valley League directors recently voted in a franchise from Charlottesville to begin play in 2015, expanding the wooden-bat league featuring college players from around the country to 12 teams representing two divisions.

Charles Town, which itself began play in the league in 2013, will be a member of the North Division along with Winchester, Front Royal, Strasburg, Woodstock and Aldie.

The South Division will consist of Charlottesville, Waynesboro, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Covington and New Market.

Charles Town is the only team not from the state of Virginia. The local franchise relocated from Luray, Va., after new owners Brett and Don Fuller purchased the former Luray Wranglers organization in 2012.

The VBL had 12 teams last year, but the Rockbridge Rapids folded following the 2013 season after their founder and general manager became ill with terminal cancer.

The league has been playing as one 11-team division in 2014.

“Charlottesville was a personal goal of mine,” said Valley Baseball League commissioner Donald Lemish. “When Rockbridge withdrew I aggressively started working to see if we could get some interest in Charlottesville. They could have played this season, but they chose to wait a year because they really wanted to have their ducks in a row.”

Former University of Virginia pitcher and first baseman Joe Koshansky is the general manager of the Charlottesville franchise. Koshansky played two years in the Valley League for the Staunton Braves before embarking on a professional career in the Colorado Rockies organization.

The new team will play its games at Charlottesville High School. A naming contest will be held later this year to determine the team’s mascot by fan vote.

“We want the community to feel this is their team,” Koshansky told The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.) newspaper. “We believe the community will embrace this team just like they have the University of Virginia program.”

The University of Virginia finished second in the nation after falling to Vanderbilt in the championship series during the Division I College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Cavaliers head coach Brian O’Connor, a fellow Valley League alum himself, is a strong supporter of the franchise in Charlottesville.

“A lot of people have become college baseball fans here and those who love the game are going to be able to see it for a couple of more months starting next June,” O’Connor told the local newspaper.

The Valley League is one of 11 leagues in the National Alliance of Collegiate Summer Baseball, an organization sanctioned by the NCAA. Funding for such leagues is partially sponsored by a grant from Major League Baseball.

Expansion is nothing new to the historic VBL, as the league has grown from eight to 12 teams during the past decade.

Founded in 1897 with five charter members in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, the league has evolved more recently from a minor league organization long ago to an NCAA-sanctioned 44-game summer league featuring college players between their sophomore and senior years of eligibility.

The league plays throughout June and July features an eight-team playoff to determine the championship in early August.

In 2004, the league grew from eight to 10 teams with the addition of franchises in Woodstock and Loudoun County.

Within the next few years, the league had grown to 12 teams after adding organizations in Fauquier County and Rockbridge.

Fauquier later was sold and became the Strasburg Express. Haymarket, under the same directorship, relocated to Aldie.

“One of the things that always has to be considered is that major league pot of money does not grow,” Lemish said. “When you bring a new team into the league you’re dividing the piece of the pie into smaller pieces. So the directors really have to believe that this makes sense. That it’s a good franchise. That it’s going to enhance interest in the Valley League overall.”

In 2011, the VBL began transitioning to not-for-profit status. As such, all teams and the league itself are now nonprofit organizations sponsored by volunteers.

Lemish said that alteration – an edict issued by Major League Baseball on which its continued grant funding was dependent – has changed the landscape of the league, making the process of expansion and potential franchise relocation all the more selective.

“At one time, in some cases, some franchises were making money and had a value,” Lemish said. “The idea that they all lose money is not necessarily true. In our league we had some very well-run franchises that had significant resale value.”

Lemish said the league’s bylaws allow for it to have 14 franchises, but he considered additional expansion unlikely. He said the league is financially sound and likely to remain so as long as the number of teams remains between eight and 12.

“Bigger is not necessarily better,” he said. “Particularly in how the league is set up and funded. It really has to be something that will make the league better.”

Decades ago, Charlottesville had a team in the Valley League nicknamed the Hornets, but the franchise ceased operations in 1974.

The city has long been coveted as host location for a potential return. Franchises now in Woodstock and Charles Town both first considered establishing roots in Charlottesville.

“In other cases it was people from the outside looking for a home,” Lemish said. “In this particular case, it was people from the inside saying they want to bring summer baseball back to Charlottesville. They had the right leadership, and it’s been a perfect marriage from the beginning.”

Lemish was in Jefferson County last week to catch the Cannons’ 6-1 victory against Harrisonburg in Shenandoah Junction.

The commissioner said Charles Town is an ideal addition to the Valley League and has a lot to offer the league.

“It’s an entertainment community to begin with,” Lemish said. “It has the casino and its got horse racing. Baseball made sense.

“The franchise is growing in a very healthy manner,” he continued. “They have a lot of the right people involved. They’re doing it the right way. The key is building support.”

Cannons president and team manager Brett Fuller welcomed the addition of Charlottesville to the league, adding that he thinks the franchise is likely to make its presence known immediately.

“I think it’s great for the league,” Fuller said. “I think everything they do is going to be done with, not only a passion for the game, but on a first-class, professional level. I know that for sure.

“They’re probably going to come out guns-a-blazing,” he continued. “They’re going to be a team to be reckoned with right off the bat next year.”

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