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Hitmen baseball team forms in Vernon Hills, after break with Cougars

Parents from newly formed Hitmen baseball team for 12- 13-year-old boys sit wait petitiVernHills Park Board for free use baseball

Parents from the newly formed Hitmen baseball team for 12- and 13-year-old boys sit and wait to petition the Vernon Hills Park Board for free use of baseball fields. | Rick Kambic/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 25, 2014 3:37AM

A group of families have broken away from the Vernon Hills Cougars baseball program and their new, independent team is now looking for fields to use for practice and game play.

Parents came before the park district’s board of commissioners on Thursday, Jan. 16, to ask for free use of fields, but were turned down. Park officials said the Cougars have first priority and any non-sanctioned team would have to rent what’s leftover.

The Cougars Youth Athletic Association provides in-house and traveling teams for cheerleading, baseball, basketball, softball, flag football, lacrosse and tackle football. The Cougars are a separate organization from the Vernon Hills Park District, but the two groups are “affiliated,” officials say, and share certain resources.

The newly-formed, independent team would be for 12- and 13-year-old boys, and would be named the Hitmen. A group of fathers already volunteered to be coaches and registered the team with an independent league that travels between Deerfield, Northbrook, Lincolnshire and Highland Park.

Jennifer Mulcrone, one of the divided parents, told park commissioners that the Cougars organization is not a perfect fit for everyone because of the intense time commitment, the requirement that parents volunteer, the long trips, stiff fees and an alleged rule that players cannot be involved in other sports simultaneously.

Until 2012, Mulcrone’s son Jack played for the Cougars’ second tier squad, which was designed for less traveling and players with medium talent. The team, however, abruptly broke apart and families registered their kids in Mundelein, Buffalo Grove and for the Lake County Lightening travel team.

Jack Mulcrone said he played in-house, lower-tier ball last season.

“It was great playing with some of my friends but I never found it to be a challenge and at times it was too easy,” Jack Mulcrone told park commissioners. “There were a lot of kids that didn’t want to be there, but their parents made them.”

Brian Mahler, commissioner for all travel baseball in the Cougars organization, told park commissioners the band of families would be welcome to resurrect the “B-team” or second tier travel team, but the Cougars organization requires tryouts supervised by an independent evaluator.

“They rejected that proposal because they want to have full control over coaches, players, who and what their team is and their schedule — which is understandable, but we want to make sure from a community standpoint that it’s fair so more kids can be involved,” Mahler said.

Other parents, including the Hitmen’s main coach Jeff Wise, said they wanted free from the “dysfunctional” Cougars organization so decisions could be made faster and more responsibly.

“Do we want full control? Yes, we want our core group of kids, who we think are the only ones who want to play anyway and we want them evaluated fairly with coaches they know in place,” Wise said. “Right now, pretty much all we need are fields.”

Ultimately, Parks Director Jeff Fougerousse said the Cougars get preference over fields per their affiliation agreement.

“If there is a field that we can make available to you, that is an option we’re open to,” Fougerousse said. “We certainly don’t use them all. But I can’t give you that tonight because our affiliate teams get the priority over park district needs.”

Fougerousse said the Hitmen could rent fields per availability after the spring schedules are made. Otherwise, he and Park Commissioner Cindy Kessler encouraged the two sides to keep working toward a mutually beneficial resolution.

After the meeting, Wise said he was disappointed that the Park Board and administration stood behind their contract with the Cougars after several alleged contractual violations on behalf of the Cougars — including $12,500 in lapsed electric bills the Village Board stepped in and covered in May.

”The park district is a silent partner in what we all know is a mess,” Wise said. “When I first started talking to (CYAA President) Mark Peterson and his guys they all admitted the Cougars need an overhaul, but no progress was ever made. We just want a better experience for our kids.”

Mahler maintained afterward that a high school coach and a minor league baseball player evaluate all Cougar teams to prevent coaches from playing favorites. He also said players are allowed to play multiple sports at once but the Cougars prohibit playing on more than one baseball team for fairness and safety.

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