The number of children participating in Boys and Girls Club of McAlester baseball and softball programs increased from 440 in 2013 to 600 in 2014, according to Chief Professional Officer Terry Green. Sign-ups for the 2015 season started Feb. 1 and will continue through the end of March, and Green said he’s hoping for as many as 700 players this year.

The Boys and Girls Club will participate in the PONY Baseball and Softball league for the first time in at least six years. The new league means this year’s players will get more games, a more competitive atmosphere for those who want it and state and potentially national postseason opportunities.

“I’m excited,” Green said Wednesday.

“The sign-ups, they’ve been kind of steady. At this point last year we hadn’t started sign-ups.”

PONY — an acronym for “Protect Our Nation’s Youth — is a Pennsylvania-based organization. Information available at PONY.org said the league became an international program in the 1950s and has turned out more than 800 major leaguers, including Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and current Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

The league offers seven primary divisions for both baseball and softball, ranging from 6-and-under Shetland up to 18-and-under Palomino. Green said the Boys and Girls Club will participate in the first five divisions, the oldest being the 14-and-under PONY division.

PONY offers district and state playoffs for its Shetland and 8-and-under Pinto divisions — both coach-pitch divisions — and also a national World Series for the older divisions. Green said Boys and Girls Club teams had been independent for the previous six years, so all of the baseball and most of the softball age groups couldn’t get postseason experience.

“We’ve had a few parents in there that like the competitive side, and that’s why we kind of offered it this year,” Green said.

“The good thing about PONY (is) in their rules it states you have to play at least 18 games. So we’re going to be looking at anywhere from 18 to 24 games. In the past, we play 10, 12 games.”

The Boys and Girls Club will offer two separate levels of play this year. Individuals needing more time to develop their skills can sign-up for the Developmental League, go through its spring training and evaluation camp and then be put on a team.

Whole teams can sign up for the Competitive League for $200.

Green said moving to PONY will mean more games for less money than it cost to join during the club’s independent years. The fee for individuals will be $20, but just $10 per sibling, meaning three brothers could sign up for the $40 it cost to sign one up in 2014.

“We won’t turn any kids back, no matter what,” Green said.

The season will start in April and continue through June, with the playoffs to run later in the summer. The Club will run a Spring Training throughout March at Bud Hale Sports Complex behind Puterbaugh Middle School, so Developmental League players who sign up earlier will get the benefit of additional practice.

Green said former player and minor league coach UL Washington will be on hand during spring training.

“The kids that signed up, they can come out and just work on fundamentalss,” Green said. “We’ll put them in stations— hitting stations, fielding stations, throwing, pitching, catching.

“Last year we only did it for two weeks. First week, we had an average of about 15 kids showing up. And then the second week, we had about 45 or 50 kids out.”

Pittsburg County appears to be in a growth period for youth baseball and softball. The Club’s move to PONY Baseball and Softball comes just weeks after Pittco Youth Sports moved to Cal Ripken Baseball and started offering softball for the first time.

Green, a former baseball player himself, said he hopes to see even more growth in the coming years.

“When I was growing up, as long as you were playing ball, that’s the main thing,” Green said. “It doesn’t really matter where you’re playing at. The main thing is getting out there and you get your reps. That’s how you get better, and that’s how you mature as a baseball player.”

The Boys and Girls Club offers multiple sports each year. Green said athletics are just part of the Club’s mission to provide children with a safe place to spend their after-school hours.

Given the discipline and training the sports demand, offering an extensive baseball and softball season is a fine way to fulfill that mission.

Contact Matt Goisman at mgoisman@mcalesternews.com.