Imagine an ESPN telecast of the Little League World Series with Monroe's all-stars taking the field during an exciting run through the tournament that has the entire town riveted. That's something parents Mark McGovern and Matt Luke would love to see.
They are tired of seeing powerhouses from Fairfield and Trumbull dominate youth baseball leagues year after year, while waiting for Monroe's talented athletes to jell as a unit and beat them at the high school level.
"Our goal is to make the kids better — to compete with the Trumbulls and the Fairfields ... trying to get them to the next level," Luke said during an interview at the Monroe Diner Friday.
In response to demand from fellow Monroe parents, McGovern and Luke started the Monroe Panthers Baseball Club, a not-for-profit with 9U and 10U teams. The 10U team will compete in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) East Shore League this spring, while the younger team holds training sessions.
The Panthers Baseball Club is not affiliated with Monroe Little League nor Masuk High School. It is a separate organization for children to hone their baseball skills. It also teaches the importance of commitment, teamwork and individual accomplishment.
McGovern said all of the kids also play in Monroe Little League and that if there are any scheduling conflicts, Little League will always take priority.
The club's website says, "Above all, we teach our kids to play fair, strive to win and do their very best each and every time they play the game. Besides raising great athletes, we strive to raise responsible citizens and young leaders in the greater Monroe community."
Getting Things Going
Practices are held in the Panthers' Den on Pepper Street, which offers batting cages and artificial turf to practice on in an indoor facility.
"It was a huge jump-start for us," Luke said of The Den. "Otherwise, we would have had to practice out of town."
Luke said the club also uses a local vendor for its uniforms. Sportslook, which is owned by Monroe Lions head football coach Steve Christy, does the silk screening.
McGovern is president and treasurer of the Monroe Panthers Baseball Club and his wife, Anna, serves as secretary. The couple has two sons, Matt, 10, and Patrick, 9, who both play Little League ball. The brothers will play for the 10U team together.
"I never played an inning of baseball in my life," said McGovern. "And my boys are beyond where I can coach them anymore."
Luke's son Kevin, 10, also plays on the 10U team. Luke is vice president of the Monroe Panthers Baseball Club and coach of the 10U team.
Dana Garrity is the 9U coach.
The club was established on Dec. 20, and Luke credits McGovern for "making it his passion." McGovern worked to establish the club as a certified not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization, eligible to receive tax deductible donations.
The Monroe Panthers Baseball Club is trying to raise money through donations to fund the 10U's season — covering training facilities rental, field rental and upkeep, coaching and umpiring fees, league fees, uniforms and equipment, and transportation.
The Secret Weapon
The AAU East Shore League season begins in early April and ends in early June, but Monroe could play deeper into June if it makes the playoffs and strings together some wins.
Luke and McGovern believe they have a secret weapon in the team's batting coach.
"We just signed Bob Olah," McGovern said. "We hope that generates some excitement."
Olah had played baseball at Notre Dame High School in Bridgeport growing up and in 1986 he was drafted by the New York Mets in the 28th round. He went on to play for five seasons in the minor leagues.
A parent, who had also played in the minors, knew Olah from having played softball together.
Prior to the Monroe Panthers Baseball Club, Luke said a number of Monroe kids joined teams in other towns to play in the AAU East Shore League. Now they will be able to play on a team right in their hometown.
"Staying with their friends and staying in their town, it was a no brainer for us to try to get things going," Luke said of establishing the club.
For information about the Monroe Panthers Baseball Club or to make a donation, visit the website.