Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories to commemorate Tawawa Park, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary.
SIDNEY — THWACK!!!!!
Nothing says summer like the sound of cowhide connecting with ash. When a bat sends a ball soaring toward the outfield, when the batter skids into home plate on the sides of his feet and one hip, when the watching crowd roars, there’s no doubt that (with apologies to Robert Browning) God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.
There are others who would say the sound of a good WHUMP in the fall makes them feel the same way. That’s the sure, hard kick that wings a soccer ball past the goalie and into the net for a score.
For more than 60 years, bats have been swinging and baseballs have been flying at fields in Custenborder Park along Riverside Drive, and soccer balls have been whizzing into nets on fields in Tawawa Park across the street. But it wasn’t always that way.
“Baseball has been a part of Sidney for years, from the time when, as a community, we fielded a team to play against the Cincinnati Reds in the early 1900s,” said Tilda Phlipot, director of the Shelby County Historical Society. “But it wasn’t a sport at Sidney High School until the late 1950s or early 1960s.”
The only available field then was in Berger Park, along Miami Avenue.
“And that was considered a Catholic Park,” Phlipot said. For whatever reason, nonCatholic kids didn’t go there to play, so nonCatholic kids didn’t play baseball.
Things began to change, however, when city officials discovered that land purchased after World War II, across the river from the Municipal Water Plant, couldn’t be used as they had planned. They had hoped to install wells to provide more water for the growing city, but there was no water there.
“They had land they didn’t know what to do with,” Phlipot said. “A group of interested men decided to build a baseball complex.”
Phlipot’s father, William McClellan, was one of them.
“They lobbied the city. The newspaper published a story that baseball was for more than just Catholics,” she said.
The drive was successful, and May 15, 1958, the first diamond at Custenborder opened. The American Legion teams began to play there, and that diamond is still reserved for them. In the 1950s, McClellan, who had played minor league ball in Lima, knew that if the Legion were to have good players, a youth league was necessary.
McClellan and other men developed the league and selected boys to play on their teams.
“They got down to the last 20 boys. No one wanted them because they didn’t have dads who would help hone their talents. So my dad took the last 20 boys and said, ‘Don’t cry when these boys take the trophy home.’ He talked to the boys’ parents about how to be good (athletes). They’d have to work hard. So they practiced every night. When they started to win, practice became a joy. And they took the trophy,” Phlipot said.
After McClellan’s work in the youth league, he began to cultivate the American Legion team. From 1963 until he died of a heart attack in 1975, he managed the team.
“When he died, they put a fence around the Legion field — now it’s called Veterans Field. That fence carries his name,” Phlipot said. “The Legion paid for materials for a dugout, and Mike Phlipot laid the block in my dad’s honor.”
At about the same time the youth league was forming, Herb Schlater established a league for girls.
“My dad was not so crazy about girls playing baseball,” Phlipot laughed.
Today, there are seven diamonds in Custenborder park and four softball diamonds in Flanagan Sports Complex in Tawawa Park.
According to Sidney Parks and Recreation Director Duane Gaier, in Custenborder Park, Veterans Field is used by the American Legion and Sidney, Holy Angels and Fairlawn Local schools’ junior high teams. Fields 6 and 7 are reserved for Sidney Electric’s team and for girls slo pitch and girls fast pitch games. Fields 2 through 5 are used by the Sidney Amateur Baseball Club, whose president is Mike Cole.
“We have 400 to 500 kids each year,” he said. Aged 5 to 13, they are assigned to teams based on their ages.
“We run a blind draft,” Cole said.
Coaches are volunteers who have passed background checks. They oversee about 10 teams of T-ball, for children 5 to 7, and G-ball, for 7- and 8-year-olds; seven in the D league, whose players are 9 and 10; and four in the C league for youngsters 11, 12 and 13.
The club was established in 1961. Cole has been involved for decades. He coached his own children when they were on teams more than 20 years ago and continues to participate. What keeps him coming back?
“I get a thrill watching these little ones. I like walking around watching the faces of the moms and dads and kids. It gives kids an avenue. They played the game, made some memories for mom and dad. Go have some popcorn and hot dogs like a bygone era,” he said. “You see that kid working his tail off all year, and then he gets his first base hit. You watch him run down the base line with a smile on his face, and there’s a tear in his eye. We’re just there for the enjoyment of the game.”
A certified umpire, himself, he takes older kids through a course to train them as umpires. It’s the same course used by the Ohio High School Athletic Association to train umpires for high school and college games.
This year’s commissioners are Dan Dicke, D-ball; Brandon Swiger, T-ball; Ken Miller, G-ball; and Cole, C-ball. Chad Geuy is T-ball commissioner assistant. Dicke also serves as club vice president. Jenny Cole is the secretary. Joe Gladura is the umpire leader.
“We’re a bunch of volunteers who want to instruct kids in the fundamentals and sit back and let them have fun. And the parents are entertained,” Cole said.
One man’s passion brings soccer to Sidney
There are just as many volunteers who keep soccer alive in Sidney, too. And that can be traced back to a man who was so passionate about the game that he came to be known as Mr. Soccer.
In fact, the Lodge Soccer Field in Tawawa is named for him.
David Lodge grew up in England, where soccer is called football and is just as popular as football is in the U.S. He played for the Stile Football Club in England and he played in the Royal Air Force in Cyprus. When he emigrated to America in 1961, he brought his soccer boots with him.
He found other adult players, most of whom were foreigners like himself. The Sidney Soccer Club was born.
“We played in the Ohio Independent League,” Lodge said.
In the mid-1960s, he organized a youth program with help from the then Sidney Daily News sports editor, Zach Crusey, and Jack Eshelman. Six teams came from Anna, Botkins and Sidney. Eshelman would drive a bus around the county to pick up players and transport them to Sidney for practices and games.
Lodge then lobbied the schools to encourage them to support the sport by fielding school teams. He also talked the YMCA into letting him run a soccer program there. Children who signed up were taught how to play the game and then moved onto teams to compete against each other. Eshelman, Joe Clayton and Tim Heckman helped to teach and coach.
The soccer club stepped away from the YMCA program for awhile, but when the Y’s program began to falter, the club took it up again. Lodge and Tom Rakowski led it. Eventually Bill Albers and John Blackford took over.
Those early games took place behind Parkwood School, behind Sidney High School, in Deam Park and on fields in Tawawa Park.
“Adults played into the 1990s. I retired from it about 1994,” Lodge said. The adult league folded soon after, as the players aged out of it.
In 1998, the city council voted to name a Tawawa field for Lodge.
“I feel really proud of my name on the game, because the game was my life. Seeing the growth of the program is great. It’s really taken off,” he said.
Taken off is right. Annually, there are more than 650 children involved now in the Shelby County Youth Soccer program, run by Pat and Dave Travis, of Sidney. At its peak, there were more than 800.
Youngsters are assigned to teams based on their ages. Kids as young as 3 play in the fall league. A spring league requires children to be at least 4. They can play in the youth program through the age of 15.
“We try to build teams so there are not too many kids on a team, and everybody gets to play,” Dave said. “On a typical Saturday, we’ve got 11 fields going.”
Spring teams are co-ed, as were all teams when the program first got underway.
“We didn’t have enough for all boys or all girls, so we had them both on teams,” said John Covelli, of Sidney, one of the early organizers.
Children 10 and older can referee games played by younger kids.
Although Pat is paid to handle registrations in the program, Dave and almost 100 parents, coaches and administrators volunteer their time. Some of them played in the program when they were youngsters. Others have continued their involvement even after their children and grandchildren have stopped playing.
Besides overseeing games, volunteers also run the annual Mayfest tournament in Sidney. It’s a major fundraiser for the program.
“Mayfest started because they got tired of selling candy bars,” Pat said.
She and Dave have participated in the Shelby County Youth Soccer program for more than 20 years. Why do they stick with it?
“We do soccer because we want to make sure kids’ soccer continues,” Pat said.
“It’s recognition,” added Dave. “Kids know who I am. I don’t mind being a positive thing in the community. We have a lot of fun.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.