Ocracoke students will have a real baseball field by the end of the summer.
The field, which will be called Ocracoke Community Park, is at the end of Maurice Ballance Road and is being prepared on a 3.8-acre tract purchased from Dal and Darren Burrus.
“If you wanted to play flag football, you had to find a drain field,” said Bob Chestnut, president of the Ocracoke Youth Center, Inc., the nonprofit organization for the field, about the scarcity of land on the island.
The group has closed on the contract and is awaiting the receipt of a stormwater permit, having already gotten two other permits, he said. Payment on the contract does not begin until the group receives all of its permits.
“It’s all about keeping the kids as busy as possible,” Chestnut said recently about the benefits of more team sports for the island.
In the meantime, the group just kicked off a two-year capital campaign to raise the $2.2 million to finance preparing the land and building the field, which also may be used for soccer and even lacrosse and eight-man football.
“Some young people on the island told me they’d be interested in starting a kick-ball league when this gets built,” Chestnut said.
A two-story activity center also is proposed eventually for the site and, possibly, a walking trail to Loop Shack Hill, which starts just north of the village along Highway 12.
“We are the only small town in the state without a ball field,” said County Manager Bill Rich, who helped with this project before becoming the county manager, about the effort. Rich will still be able to help with his fundraising efforts for the field.
The dream of having a baseball field has been long held by some Ocracokers, especially Vince O’Neal, who is a passionate fan of the sport and is the manager of the team.
“We didn’t have enough kids on the island to play when I was a kid,” he said recently. A 1978 graduate of the Ocracoke School, O’Neal had five kids in his class.
“The class behind me had two,” he added. “Now there are enough kids to field teams. It’s exciting to see these kids play something we wanted to play while growing up. It’s a dream come true.”
That’s because the Ocracoke School, which includes pre-K through 12th grade, now has156 students, the highest it’s ever been, said Lisa Caswell, Ocracoke School secretary.
“The school population has bloomed,” O’Neal said.
As a youngster, O’Neal wanted badly to play real baseball.
“One of the basic necessities of life is to be able to play baseball,” O’Neal continued about America’s sport. “To see these kids with uniforms on their backs is great. These kids deserve that.”
The push to have a Little League team on Ocracoke began more than two years ago when, at the behest of some parents, former Youth Center director Karen Lovejoy started a baseball program to teach basic skills. In 2011, Lovejoy made contact with the Hatteras Island Babe Ruth Little League and they agreed to let an Ocracoke team join the league.
Ocracoke quickly formed a team of 15 boys ages 10 to 12 who became part of the Cal Ripken Division. The Raptors, the 10th-12th graders who practiced on islander Keith McDermott’s front yard, ended their inaugural season in 2011, finishing second.
This year, the Raptors and a new middle-school team, the Dolphins, the Blue Claw team for 7- to 9-year-olds, and a newly formed T-ball team for kids in pre-K to first grade are in the midst of their seasons. There are at least 80 kids playing baseball this year, O’Neal said.
“Within two years, as the middle school kids get older, we want to have a varsity team and next year have a girls’ softball team,” O’Neal said.
Organizers also hope to add a jogging track around the ball field, noted Garrick Kalna, who designed the field.
As to locals’ concerns about bright lights on the field, the design materials show that the lighting will be low impact and will coincide with the Ocracoke noise ordinance, which directs outdoor music to stop at 10 p.m.
The Ocracoke Youth Center, which offered after-school activities primarily for younger kids, was looking for a new direction after the Ocracoke School received a federal 21st Century after-school program grant in 2011 that involved most all the school children on the island. As a result, the Youth Center changed its focus to outdoor recreation and the community park filled that niche.
“They needed a nonprofit and we were looking for a renewed focus,” Chestnut explained about the collaboration building the ball field. “This is an awesome fit.”
At this point, organizers have raised $250,000 in cash pledges and $71,000 in in-kind pledges toward their goal, Kalna said.
Among the benefits to the community, according to the group’s promotional materials, is it will help reduce worker absenteeism due to off-island travel time, as well as fuel expenses for practice and games and promoting tourism with tournaments.