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Travelers’ veterans help younger players progress

Winning another North Branch Baseball League championship was gratifying. Core players who have competed with the Hughesville Travelers over the last 10 years captured their fifth title in eight years last Saturday at Bodine Park, taking two of three games from the Northumberland Renegades.

Really, though, the championships are a bonus. What drives the veterans above everything else is working with the team’s younger players. The Travelers feature decorated pro, college and high school alumni playing alongside current collegiate and scholastic athletes. Long-time Travelers like coaches Matt Balliet and Ethan Showers, as well as players like Mike Laychur, Mike Earnest, Ryan Wyland, Ryan Miller and Joel Worthington, to name a few, experience their biggest thrills helping those younger players trying to achieve their baseball dreams.

“It’s a lot of different baseball minds, but we bring it all together,” said Balliet, a 2008 Hughesville graduate. “The younger kids are not just there to get four at-bats and field some grounders. We want them to learn, too, and that’s how you get better. That’s a big thing we try to do on the Travelers.”

They do it quite well.

While Showers was the team’s Triple Crown winner, recent Hughesville graduate and incoming Bucknell freshman Jacob Corson hit .455 with four home runs, 12 RBIs and 21 runs scored. He also was one of the team’s top pitchers. Millville graduate Kelly Holdren was the staff ace and wins leader with recent Montoursville graduate and incoming Penn College freshman Joel Verrico also throwing well.

Hughesville graduate/Juniata senior Ryan McClain was one of the team’s top hitters and Loyalsock graduate/Mount St. Mary’s junior Andrew Malone pitched well. Loyalsock graduate/Wilson junior Eric Holz provided some pop and Williamsport senior Michael Collyer batted .375. Hughesville graduate Ian Gagliano hit .286 and both he and Corson won championships in consecutive weekends in the Independent Summer and North Branch Leagues.

These are talented players, but they also are hard-working. The veterans have traveled a lot of baseball circles and provide that young nucleus quite a resource.

“It just makes it enjoyable to be around guys trying to get better. It’s good to see younger guys putting everything into it,” said Wyland, an outstanding high school and collegiate player, who also competed in the independent Northern League. “It’s fun to be there for them and talk about baseball experiences. Our goal is to have fun and help these guys get better and I would love to see these guys keep going further.”

Some of the older players have not just excelled on the field, but in the dugout as well. Miller helped Williamsport turn things around upon his arrival in 2016 and led it to its first district championship in six years a season later. Worthington has been an assistant at Williamsport since 2016, Earnest was part of Hughesville’s coaching staff when the Spartans captured their first district championship in 2013, and both Balliet and Showers have been coaching throughout the last 10 years. Hughesville assistant coach Nate Hill also has managed the Travelers and was an assistant coach on Loyalsock’s 2013 and 2014 Class AA state championship teams.

They have not just been good players, but have worked with good players. They know the game and they know how to make others better. What a joy it is then combining those two passions throughout the season.

“It’s enjoyable to be around guys who are wanting to get the most out of their baseball careers before it’s over,” Wyland said. “When I was playing my dad ran a league in Montoursville and it was the same thing. It was trying to give guys a chance to play in a competitive league with the opportunity to keep getting better.”

The Travelers offered an especially enticing opportunity this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The North Branch League was one of the few baseball leagues in North Central Pennsylvania and it helped the high school and college players stay sharp after losing their respective seasons. Practice and workouts are great, but there really is no substitute for actual games so the younger players still received on-the-field training as they prepare for their 2021 campaigns.

“I can’t speak enough about the quality of the players that go off to play in college and beyond. I wish more people noticed this area because it’s fun to see guys go above and beyond that leave the area,” Wyland said. “It’s a great area for baseball and a lot of work that these guy do goes on behind the scenes and it’s fun to watch.”

The veterans provided production with Showers sparking the offense and Wyland throwing a complete game six-hitter in a 4-3 championship-clinching win. Still, they might have been just as valuable as mentors. Holdren did not have his best stuff in Game 1 of the championship series, but he consulted with Miller and Wyland between innings and threw six strong innings as Hughesville took the first game, 6-4.

Talent, experience, preparation and opportunity all have came together again this season.What a potent blend that has become.

“All those younger guys are like sponges. They just suck up the knowledge and listen to all the guys they should be listening to,” Balliet said. “It was that kind of season. That’s what made it so fun.”

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