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Blue Don vision becomes a reality

Arlia, Madonna get ready for spring, unveil indoor facility for baseball, softball teams

SPEAKING — Madonna Athletic Director Michael Arlia speaks to Madonna supporters at the new indoor facility on Wednesday. -- Andrew Grimm

WEIRTON — What started as an idea three years ago became a reality Wednesday afternoon.

That idea was turning an empty building into an indoor practice facility for Madonna’s baseball and softball teams, and the Blue Dons formally debuted the finished product.

The 8,000-square-foot building is located off of Pennsylvania Avenue. It was vacant and owned by Starvaggi Industries Inc., and the surrounding area was cleaned and transformed by a group of Madonna alumni and volunteers.

“At the same time, we reached out to past alumni and friends of Madonna High School about our idea and began to receive both financial and in-kind volunteer support,” Athletic Director Michael Arlia said.

He cited the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and an anonymous donor as the biggest financial contributors to the project.

“I think the diocese is thoroughly invested in our young people,” said the Rev. Dennis Schuelkens, Madonna’s chaplain who blessed the facility as part of the unveiling. “It is moments like this that you see how invested they are. A facility that is focused on sports is one element of our character formation, but it is a big element.

“Character formation is really unfolded in the course of competition. We support our young people, not only academically, but in their sporting events, too, and this is one way that we could do that.”

Schuelkens noted how the new facility is just one of the new developments going on at the school.

“It’s amazing to see,” he said. “It’s exciting to see all of the different things that are happening at Madonna. We just got a national award in our curriculum innovation, now an indoor facility. We’ve done some major renovations to the school itself with the gym, the locker rooms, the weight room and lighting in the school.

“We are setting our sights high on moving forward. Madonna is doing nothing but moving forward.”

The renovated facility features LED lighting, a batting cage and turf. It will serve as the primary indoor practice facility for the high school baseball and softball teams. It will provide for additional practice space to the other high school and Catholic grade school teams when needed, according to Arlia.

Veteran softball coach Chris Conti, who was involved in the work to make the project happen, is happy for the benefit it will bring the student athletes.

“It is a great benefit,” he said. “I have been coaching here for 28 years, and this is just a dream come true, something that we have always wanted to do. It’s a big benefit for the girls and the boys to be able to come down here and practice.

“You don’t have to practice in a little gym any more. You can come down here and hit, do a full infield here, the turf is fantastic. The kids will enjoy practicing in a facility like this.”

Head baseball coach Jeff Baire, who will return to the Madonna dugout this season, said having such a facility will make a big difference as teams battle the early spring weather.

“It’s incredible for the program,” Baire said. “It allows us to have a place to practice even when the weather is bad outside. Just the simple fact that we have a facility like this, not just for baseball, softball, but the other sports that can benefit from a place like this is incredible.

“It’s extremely beneficial with the weather, and taking into consideration that there are other activities that take place in the school. It can get congested. Having something like this really opens things up.”

Arlia echoed those sentiments.

“Starting in 12 days, softball is never going to miss a practice and baseball a week after that,” he said. “There have been two times in the last five years the softball team played the first game having not been on the field (due to weather canceling practice). Now, what a difference.

“I think just letting the athletes have something that is collegiate level that is built for baseball and softball … in your hometown, right in the middle of Weirton, not having to drive to Pittsburgh or somewhere else is big. This is like when they built the community center 70 or 80 years ago.”

According to a release from the school, individualized hitting, catching, fielding and pitching lessons will be offered for a fee to those looking to improve their skills. The school also is exploring options of renting out the facility in the future.

“There are so many that had a hand in making this long-shot idea happen, and to them we are eternally grateful,” Arlia said. “We plan on honoring these volunteers and donors by listing their names on the wall inside the facility.

“We feel that this facility fills a void that was lacking at Madonna and in the Weirton area, causing parents to travel outside of the area for their kids to practice in the winter months. We are proud to have this in Weirton and continue to look for ways to serve this community that we call home. “

Baire hopes the facility can help grow the sports among the community’s youth.

“With the idea of having other kids come in and be able to pick up learning opportunities along the way, that’s incredible for not just Madonna, but the entire community, Weirton and the surrounding areas,” Baire said. “I personally hope (that is helps grow the games). I’m a big believer that there are a lot of people that want to help grow the game, help the kids and provide their time.

“Giving them the opportunity to be able to come in and learn will be a big help, and having this so we can do things on a year-round basis that are oriented toward baseball and softball, my hope is that it does grow the sports in the area.”

Madonna 2003 graduate Luke Myers, treasurer at Starvaggi and assistant baseball coach on Baier’s staff, who Arlia cited as the person with the original vision for the project, said it was a lot of work to make the project a reality.

“It was great to see people step up and all pull together for a cause,” he said. “To step back now and see the final result, it’s humbling.

“Madonna did so much for me when I was there, it is always good to be able to give back when you have the opportunity to do so. I think there was a void, not only at Madonna, but in Weirton, that something like this wasn’t available. Now our kids, instead of having to travel outside of the area, will be able to utilize something here in Weirton.”

Myers and Arlia also stated there will be an upcoming second phase of the project to add new restrooms and locker rooms.

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