Bruce Armstrong has been a part of the Hope Mills youth sports scene for decades.

He coached countless teams, eventually becoming president of the Hope Mills Youth Association, an all-volunteer group that supports the town’s recreation department.

It wasn’t hard for someone with so much experience to see that Brower Park was bursting at the seams during the town’s annual Dixie Youth Opening Day.

“When we did it at Brower Park with 1,000 people, you couldn’t see half the time,” Armstrong said. “The parking was a nightmare. We’d just gotten too big for it.”

For the first time in decades, Hope Mills held its Opening Day ceremony away from Brower Park, instead kicking off the season Saturday at J.P. Riddle Stadium, home of the Fayetteville SwampDogs.

Hundreds of players, split among more than 40 teams, filed into “The Swamp” to the applause of family and friends seated throughout the stadium’s bleacher seats.

Armstrong’s son, Matt, who coaches the 7-8 Padres, is a fan of the move.

“I like it. It’s something new,” Matt said. “All these kids love the SwampDogs, so they’re excited to be here.”

It was actually the SwampDogs organization, specifically the team’s director of group sales and tickets, James Farren, who came up with the idea to have the team host the ceremony.

Farren was a first-year Dixie Youth coach last season when he saw an opportunity for both sides to benefit from an Opening Day with the Dogs.

“The SwampDogs want our community to know that we’re a family-oriented part of the community,” Farren said. “And we want everybody to come out here and be a part of it.”

The improved visibility for fans earned the praise of Joe Locklear, who was seated down the first-base line Saturday to watch his son, 9-year-old Malik, enter with his team, the 9-10 Yankees.

“You get a much better chance to actually see the players on the field,” Locklear said. “There wasn’t really any seating (at Brower Park). The overview is a whole lot better.”

For Rachel Martinez, J.P. Riddle’s spacious parking lot was an improvement over Brower Park, where families had to park in the nearby lots of Rockfish Elementary or even across Rockfish Road at the town’s recreation center.

“The parking near the rec center and just with the traffic and congestion right there, this is a lot better,” she said.

Martinez said her children — 11-year-old Ayden Arnold, 10-year-old Zoie Drake and 5-year-old Connor Sullivan — were excited to be on the field where the SwampDogs play.

“They’re a major team in our area,” Martinez said. “And they also love to come out here for their awards ceremony at the end of the year.”

The organization also took some of the burden off of the HMYA in coordinating and directing the day's events.

“The SwampDogs leadership worked really hard,” Armstrong said. “They recruited community service volunteers to come out and help. The field’s in great shape. It’s a special experience for the kids.”

Armstrong said he doesn’t think the move to J.P. Riddle will be a permanent one for the league’s Opening Day events, but it’s something he thinks is worth revisiting in the future.

“It’s something we ought to do periodically just to give the kids the experience,” Armstrong said.

 

Community sports writer Jaclyn Shambaugh can be reached at jshambaugh@fayobserver.com or 609-0651.