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A Community Double Play

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Two Lake Mary High baseball stars have committed to play for top universities, but they’ll leave behind a legacy of community service on and off local fields

They have been friends since Little League. And soon, two Lake Mary High School graduates will be off to prestigious colleges with a hope to make it in professional baseball. What they leave behind, besides some killer stats, is a dedication to community service.

Pitcher Conner Udell, who will attend Princeton next year, has spent the past four years helping the Central Florida Bambino Buddy Ball program, in which local student athletes team up with youngsters facing severe physical and developmental disabilities. With the help of their “buddies,” the young players enjoy a taste of our national pastime on a specially designed handicap-accessible field at Eastmonte Park in Altamonte Springs.

Conner’s teammate, Frank Niemann, who is off to Tulane University after he graduates, volunteered his time to help coach the next generation of ballplayers by hosting a free summer camp this year, sharing tips and advice with Little League students on the Rams’ baseball field.

“It was pretty fun. You get to sort of act like a kid again,” the catcher says.

Janet O’Connor, a parent volunteer at Lake Mary High School, says this kind of community involvement goes a long way toward helping star students mature.

“It’s a way of grounding these high-school athletes,” Janet says. “They come out of it appreciating what they have been given in life. This is especially the case with Buddy Ball, where high-school students sometimes feel a little apprehensive at first, given the physical limitations of many Buddy Ball players. But they come out of it gaining so much. They usually want to go back. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

On the Buddy Ball field, volunteers team up with each Buddy Ball participant to serve as a mentor, going to bat with them, running the bases with them, or maybe just hanging in the dugout. Conner admits to being “a little nervous” when he joined the program as a freshman. But that apprehension melted away quickly enough, and he was hooked almost from the beginning. Buddy Ball became a weekly experience.

“All they want is a friend to play with,” Conner says. “They all get an equal chance. They don’t care if they hit the ball two feet or 200 feet.”

Conner even serves on the Buddy Ball board of directors, and he helps with fundraising and organizing the program’s               annual banquet.

Janet, whose two boys have also volunteered with Buddy Ball, is particularly impressed that Conner agreed to coach. It is difficult, she says, to recruit coaches from the ranks of Buddy Ball parents, given the challenges in their lives.
“Sometimes, it’s all they can do to get the kids to the field,” Janet says.

Buddy Ball founder Sarah Reece calls Conner “a wonderful kid.”

“He has a lot of patience, which you have to have,” Sarah says.

But whether it is Buddy Ball or mentoring Little League kids, the idea is to keep things light and fun. At Frank’s summer camp, a makeshift slip-and-slide was constructed on the LMHS ballfield with raw materials from a home-improvement store. The Little Leaguers earned trips down the refreshing slide as they completed drills throughout the day.

Frank gives a little laugh when he remembers young players asking him for an autograph.

“These kids look up to you,” he says. “You want to lead by example.”

After their senior year ends, these close friends will part ways. Frank had never even been to New Orleans before recently touring Tulane. He hung around the French Quarter, took in a jazz concert, ate a lot, and enjoyed the laid-back Big Easy atmosphere.

“I knew right away, this has everything,” Frank says. “This is where I want to be. It’s completely different than any city I have ever been in.”

Conner will study in the more suburban atmosphere of Princeton, the Ivy League school in New Jersey that was founded before the American Revolution.

“It’s a great fit,” Conner says, noting that his red hair goes well with the team mascot, the Tigers.
Conner also considered attending Cornell University.

“It was a tough decision,” he says. “But it’s hard to say no to the number-one school in the country.”

 

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