Creating a community through competition

Creating community through competition

The Syracuse Sports Association blends athletics with relationships for thousands of CNY adults.
Published: July 11, 2021 | Updated: July 27th, 2021 at 4:45 pm

The Syracuse Sports Association started as a kickball league and the sport remains the league's most popular attraction. Teams meet on four fields in Liverpool, New York, in the spring, summer and fall.
The Syracuse Sports Association started as a kickball league and the sport remains the league's most popular attraction. Teams meet on four fields in Liverpool, New York, in the spring, summer and fall.

Heavy rain from the night before lingered over the field as humidity and 90-degree heat made droplets of sweat bead up and drip down the noses of athletes and spectators alike. The damp mixture of sand, clay, and silt of the infield clung to the clothes and skin of the athletes in play. This scene could be found in myriad places like a Syracuse Mets, collegiate softball, or playground baseball game, but none of these teams were playing here.

The Syracuse Sports Association (SSA) brings together adult athletes on the premise that no one is too old to play. Kickball is often played by kids during recess, but the adults in the league haven’t lost their sense of joy and competition for the sport.

Situated a stray kick from the nearest field, the home office of the SSA oversees four kickball fields and areas for cornhole and flag football just past the busy intersection of Oswego Road and I-90. The office is an inconspicuous, one-story construction with just a few rooms, but inside, Andrew “Rock” Cherock conducts his business as the founder of what he calls the only adult sports and social club in Central New York.

Cherock, a mortgage consultant in his early 40’s with a short, well-kept beard, said the league averages 90-100 teams regardless of the season, but with no spring kickball in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, more than 150 teams signed up for the summer.

“The league gives an avenue to adults who are still active,” Cherock said. “Sports connect people. I can’t go anywhere without running into these people that know me from the league.”

Flag football teams, some staffed by local semi-professional players, meet near the SSA office every weekend for league games.
Flag football teams, some staffed by local semi-professional players, meet near the SSA office every weekend for league games.

The SSA started as a dream to connect adults through kickball, and with his fingers crossed and no competition in the area, Cherock expanded the league to include softball, flag football, cornhole, basketball, and even an E-sports league that features Madden football video games.

With sports and community at its heart, the SSA works to give back to the area that builds it up. The Run of the Dead, an annual event started in 2011, pits human obstacle course runners against zombies through a hand-crafted woodland course. Runners wear the same flags worn by the league’s football players as zombies attempt to grab them. The $35 admission price goes toward the run, food, beverages, and a bonfire, and the proceeds go to the Wilderness Search and Rescue Team based in North Syracuse. Runners can still sign up for the Ocotber 9, SSA sponsored event.

Ten years prior, Cherock was one of many CNY adults eager to stay active with community sports. As he played in various leagues, he noticed that hundreds of others in the area weren’t so lucky. The smaller operations would leave 60-70 teams on waiting lists every season, which sparked the Onondaga Community College graduate to branch out, create his own league, and get adults in the area the activity and socialization they craved.

Dawn Bigtree (front) and Tyler Eysaman (back) line up their throws in the second game of their three-game set.
Dawn Bigtree (front) and Tyler Eysaman (back) line up their throws in the second game of their three-game set.

Inside his office, jerseys from Cherock’s time as a player are pinned up next to flatscreen monitors that survey the fields just outside. A makeshift air conditioning unit keeps him and his one-year-old German Shepherd cool during the summer as the number of teams are poised to outdo any in the league’s history.

While the SSA operated in the summer and fall of last year under the stipulations of masking, social distancing, and limited interaction between players of opposing teams, the draw of the league is its social, communal nature. Shared coolers on picnic tables act as dugouts as music plays on personal speakers.

When Cherock isn’t in his office, he mingles with the teams, walking his dog to various games greeting players and officials alike. As the league expanded, the goal and premise behind the league remained. Cherock said he wanted to give active adults an avenue to connect, compete, and build relationships through the sports they love.

“You get the chance to meet other teams, and you can sub in players from other teams if you need,” Cherock said. “Everyone hangs out after the games, which they couldn’t last year with our (COVID-19) rules.”

Many of the sports were proposed by Cherock to draw people to the league, but the community helped it to expand. Bars like Ye Olde Clipper Tavern and Meier’s Creek Brewing Company offered space for him to create cornhole leagues five nights a week. The symbiotic relationship exposes people to the SSA while the league brings in weeknight traffic to the bars.

Outfielders guard the fence from fly balls on the diamond at the SSA Kickball Park.
Outfielders guard the outfield fence on the diamond closest to the SSA office building.

While the spaces at the bars and SSA fields work for many sports, a handful of softball leagues sprouted less than 10 miles away at the scenic Baldwinsville Community Park. Two fields tucked side-by-side in a forest clearing house the games, and aside from the chirping of birds, the only sounds that can be heard are the cheers that follow the cracking of bats.

The park creates a place for the children of players to gather, meet, and play while their parents do the same. A parking area sits down a path to the left of the fields, but between spectators and players, the lot filled quickly and cars spilled into the grass despite a sign to stay off the lawn.

Players dotted the field in an assortment of knee-braces and compression sleeves that hinted at a slightly older demographic than kickball, but younger players made their mark. After a few diving catches and extra base hits, one of the younger players was met with joking remarks of, “What high school do you go to?” and “Check his papers,” to see if he belonged on the field with the older players.

While these lighthearted comments demonstrate the fun had by members of the community, there is a seriousness to the competition marked by three umpires enforcing rules and making judgements on close plays.

A line drive flew right over the head of a shortstop, but before it passed him, he leapt into the air, raised his glove high and snagged the ball to a chorus of cheers. The batter, impressed, looked back to his own dugout with his fingers pinched close, indicating that another inch higher on his hit would have gotten him on base. The right fielder sang out, “Duh nuh nuh, duh nuh nuh,” mimicking the sound of top ten plays featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and a young girl in the dugout with her mother cheerfully echoed his chant.

The SSA brings together families, teammates, and competitors with an atmosphere of fun and the spirit of competition. As the number of sports grow, the league expands further and further as a business and community.

“I hoped (the league) would work, and I’m happy it launched,” Cherock said. “It started as kickball as a mechanic to get and meet people. Some people play every night. It’s an opportunity to meet people and stay active.”

Back at the softball fields, adults played games while the children created their own just off to the side of the field. Kids played catch with comically large baseball gloves, a mother pushed a baby on a small, blue swing, and a remote-controlled car patrolled the lane behind the dugouts. The merriment of the summer evening was only interrupted as those of all ages rushed to their vehicles as a popup shower soaked the fields.

The faces of the SSA

The Syracuse Sports Association is an organization made up of thousands of CNY adults, but to look at it solely from afar would miss the many stories that make it a true community. The names and faces of the SSA bring it to life. The sights, sounds, and experiences of the league are captured in those that spend their evenings playing the games they love.

Brian Doyle saw the pitch roll in and blasted a home run to secure three runs and the victory for his team.
Brian Doyle saw the pitch roll in and blasted a home run to secure three runs and the victory for his team.

Meet the Players

Brian Doyle came up to kick. His team held a healthy lead late in the game, but a few insurance runs never hurt. He scratched his right cleat into the dirt behind home plate and waited for the pitch. The underhand toss came, bouncing on the uneven, play-worn infield, but he timed it perfectly and sent the ball flying over the waist-high fence in the center of the outfield. As he rounded towards home, he pointed towards an excited bench of teammates perched just behind the SSA office.

Including his teammates, Doyle said the league is a great way to build friendships through the love of the game.

“I’ve met some cool people in the few years I’ve played,” Doyle said. “Definitely helps who come in from out of town to meet people.”

Doyle joined the league in 2017 after an injury-plagued professional football stint in Europe marked the end of his contact sports career. The Syracuse native played middle linebacker in high school, but he didn’t have the size Division I coaches were looking for.

He played two years of Junior College football and drew the attention of Acadia, a school in Nova Scotia, after earning honors as a top player in New York State. He asked the school for a plane ticket, and within a week, he took his career to rural Canada. Acadia gave him a place to live and continue his football career before he launched into a pro career with the Braga Black Knights in the Portuguese League of American Football.

Doyle said he was recruited because European teams often looks for experienced U.S. players to fulfil multiple roles within the organization. Doyle became a linebacker for the team, but he also acted as the team’s defensive coordinator, coaching while he played.

Two groin tears cut his career short of his goal to play for the top European league in Germany, so he returned to his native Syracuse looking for an outlet for his athleticism and a team environment. The SSA brought him both, and while crowds at kickball games don’t rival professional football, a smile broke across his face as he rounded the bases.

Dave Mara of BLYFLT stretches for a catch at first base to warm up before a matchup with another undefeated team.
Dave Mara of BLYFLT stretches for a catch at first base to warm up before a matchup with another undefeated team.

After returning from Illinois, Dave Mara, a Liverpool, New York, native considered by some of his younger teammates to be one of the fathers of the league, found the SSA on Facebook.

“(Kickball is) a lot more intense than you’d think for a third grader’s game,” Mara said, laughing.

His initial team was a group of coworkers, but as that team came and went, he joined better and better teams until he was winning championships with and against some of the best players in the league. The SSA kickball seasons operate like many other sports with regular seasons determining playoff seeding and elimination games to crown a champion. Winning is important to the teams, but the prize T-shirt he received in the fall was still folded neatly in his bag from the day he won it.

His new team, BLYFLT, is a play on the names of two opponents, once teammates, that he’d like to keep from winning a championship. The team’s matching T-shirt jerseys have the two men’s faces Photoshopped to match the poster of the 2008 movie Step Brothers, and the team name stands for Beagle Love You Furlong Time.

Mara’s jersey reads “SportsDave” on the back, and he plays on enough teams throughout the week that some of his teammates one night become opponents the next. He said the league’s community has created a cycle of friends for him and others, and he has no plans to retire until he can no longer play to his strengths as a first baseman.

“When I stretch to catch a ball and can’t get up, that’s when I’m done,” Mara said.

Kevin Whaelan (left) and Jeff Eysaman (right) grab their bags during a game of cornhole.
Kevin Whaelan (left) and Jeff Eysaman (right) grab their bags during a game of cornhole.

Meet the Opponents

Aim, step, throw, thud. Aim, step, throw, thud. In just their first season playing competitive cornhole, Dawn Bigtree and her husband Kevin Whaelan were on a roll. Nearly every throw was on the board for Whaelan, and Bigtree sunk shot after shot into the hole in the center of the board for three points.

Next to them, also in their first season in the SSA, were the Eysaman brothers. Jeff lives in Liverpool, New York, and his brother recently joined him. The two were struggling to stay afloat in their late evening matchup, and they dropped both games in the three-game set. Smiles and laughs were exchanged throughout the beatdown as the brothers reminisced on their social situation just a summer ago.

“Now at the tail-end of the pandemic, it’s a sense of normalcy,” Tyler Eysaman said. “It’s a great way to meet new people through a friendly game.”

“It’s great to see people here, not a mask in sight,” Jeff Eysaman said. “It feels normal.”

The brothers, both in their early twenties, joined the league looking for a fun weeknight activity and a way to meet new people. While Bigtree and Whaelan, middle-aged parents with their kids in tow because the babysitter canceled at the last minute, aren’t of their peer group, the evening was a fun meeting despite the lopsided score.

Bigtree summed up the couple’s desires in joining the league.

“It’s just all-around fun,” Bigtree said. “Great atmosphere, competitive, great way to meet people and get active. You can only play with your neighbors so many times.”

While their neighbors were treated to a break from the dynamic cornhole duo, the Eysaman brothers weren’t as lucky. To watch the game was to see a beatdown, but to listen to it was another matter entirely. Shots were complimented routinely among opponents and laughter drowned out the sound of other players at nearby boards. As Bigtree slid in bag after bag, an unlikely friendship, and potential rivalry, was forming.