The Hernando Youth League started in 1958 as a baseball-only sports program. When the organization started, there was only one high school in the county to help with sports – Hernando High School. Over time, more schools would be built in the area, and with the help of coaches like Ernie Wever, the league would grow into a multi-sport operation, including men’s and women’s sports such as football, softball, basketball, and soccer. As football and softball were not added to the roster of sports on offer until the late 1970s, a large swath of the history of the league is defined by its baseball origins. So how did it all get started? Legendary Hernando Youth League Coach Ernie Wever shed some light on the subject in an interview for the 50-year anniversary of the league on Hernando County’s website.
“It started with the visit at the Brooksville Rotary Club I had just joined,” Coach Wever said. “[Duke Delk] told us about an organization called Little Boys Baseball and asked the club to sponsor a team and also work to get a franchise. He said we would be the third franchise in the state of Florida. The team would be made up of boys from 8 through 12 years of age. The club voted to do it and started. Duke went to the Kiwanis Club in Masaryktown… They also agreed to sponsor, and we started [Hernando Youth League] with three baseball teams of boys 8 through 12 years of age in 1958.”
The league had very humble origins playing at a variety of locations around the area before Tom Varn Park was constructed in 1971 and Ernie Wever Youth Park’s establishment in the mid-1980s. Before this, one such location where games were played was at a baseball field by the Masaryktown community center in the early 1960s. This was the first such location in the area to contain a lit field to play on. There were also three fields by Hernando High School that the league used throughout the years before Tom Varn Park. Getting the park built was a collaborative effort, according to Coach Wever.
“Well, [Tom Varn] field that you had pictures of a while ago, the county, the city, Florida Power at that time, and some of the employees at Withlacoochee Electric got together, and we built that field,” Coach Wever said. “The city was a big part of it. The county lent some equipment to build it, and Florida Power put up the lights. I think the city bought those. Some of the Withlacoochee employees helped. A bunch of us got together. We put the lights on the poles on the ground. That’s where they came in doing the electrical.”
Ernie Wever Youth Park followed an interesting timeline. When Florida State Representative John Culbreath and others were trying to find a use for a 200-acre plot of land, the plan was to allot 49 of those acres to the youth park, but Culbreath had his doubts. He did not believe that those involved would be able to get the park built and operational on such a sizable portion of land in the 10-year lease window. Astoundingly, this was nowhere close to the truth. Within five years, the park was up and running, while 100 of the remaining acres that the state had leased out had not found a use within its decade-spanning lease. That is when former Hernando Youth League player Bruce Snow had the brilliant idea of agreeing to sublease 25 acres of the county’s land so that the state would not lose the lease. The state would return the favor years later and help in the maintenance of the youth park when Coach Wever was preparing to retire.
Football had a relatively seamless transition into the league. According to Wever, George Harrison and Don Sutton, who were football and baseball coaches in the area at the time, suggested at a board meeting that the two sports should “merge together in one organization.” With their help, the basis of a multi-sport youth league was formed. When it came to softball, Coach Wever was very forthright about helping include the girls into the league. Former Hernando Youth League Softball Coach Lisa Platt recounted the story of how it started.
“Well, the girls’ softball was non-existent in 75, and my daughter came of age, and I wanted her to play,” Coach Platt said. Ernie Wever came to me and said, ‘We’re going to develop a [Hernando Youth League] field, and we want the girls to join in, which would be Ernie Weaver Park today. So, we got in the old, orange Hernando State Bank truck and drove out to the [Hernando Youth League] field, which was nothing but woods, and we bounced all over the place, and we were going to join in with it. And Ernie pushed it to have the girls out at the field with them. And as it turned out, there were more boys than the girls because we had six or eight teams. So, we stayed in Brooksville. Some of the girls wanted to play competitive ball, so they started joining in with the boys to play ball. And it could’ve been a few earlier than that, but I know that from our experience.”
Many high-profile athletes have come through the league over the years. Coach Wever and company recounted some of the bigger names to come out of the program, including Cardinals Third Baseman and Outfielder Eddie Looper, Pitcher Mike Walker, Tim Sims, who had played for the ill-fated San Jose Bees, and Pitcher Bronson Arroyo. Arroyo won a world championship when he played for the 2004 iteration of the Boston Red Sox. Arroyo has had much written about his life, with the Sun contributing to that as well, but players like Arroyo are only part of the story.
Coach Joe Sims recalls a more personal tale that he believes is an integral part of Hernando Youth League sports. “I coached about 18 years, sometimes two teams a year. I had one person that actually quit my team, and his name is Tom Freeman, and the last time I knew about Tom Freeman, he was living in Miami. A very successful businessman. When he came on the team, he was, to say it the nicest you can, rough. He didn’t follow. He quit the team. The next year he came back and asked to be on the team.
“He showed up at my house several years ago and knocked on my door; he said, ‘Coach, you don’t know who I am.’ I said, ‘Oh yes, Tom. I could not forget you.’ And he laughed. He said, ‘I want to introduce you to my wife and my daughters.’ He had two daughters. And the words out of his mouth – and this was far greater than anything I accomplished on the field, little or big – he told his wife, ‘This man is the reason I’m alive today because I would have killed myself and the reason we are what we are in Miami, Florida today.’”
Stories like these are what the Hernando Youth League is all about. Providing safe activities for children, teaching those children important lessons for the future, and bringing the community together.