By John Hanson
Special to the Herald Times
RBC | Sometimes we get swept up in an event that helps build part of our character without us realizing it until much later in life. Sometimes much, much, later. So, perhaps, will be the journey that 13 boys with a love for baseball took this summer.
The 8-10 year old all-stars from the Colorado River Valley Little League came together as a team, defied the odds and made it all the way to the state tournament, where they played hard but were eliminated from the competition after two games. Yet, by setting examples of teamwork, togetherness, perseverance, and displaying a deep joy for the game, this group will be remembered as not always being the winner, but never being losers.
Their journey began just as most of their fellow players in the Colorado River Valley Little League were putting their bats and balls away for the summer. Rifle Yankees’ coach Matt Magnuson volunteered to coach the team of 13 chosen for their outstanding performances during the regular season.
Most select Little League teams are made up of boys from the same neighborhoods, schools and towns. Not so for the CRV team. They were separated by towns nearly 110 miles apart: Colton Lemus, Landon Carlson and Aaron Winkler from Rangely; Edwin Villapando, Skyler Browning and Finley Deming from Meeker; Robbie Magnuson, Juan Pablo Olivas, Wyatt Haymes and Quentin Kramer from Rifle; George Roberts from Silt; and Mason Markovich and Jakson Slade from New Castle. Magnuson asked friend and Yankee assistant Matt LaRoque, a first year coach, to join him, along with 20-year veteran coach Erik Slade from New Castle.
At their first practice coach Magnuson welcomed the players and told them how he believed in them and that they would need to believe in themselves as well to succeed. Coach Slade took time to teach them how to act as all-stars by the way they ran on and off the field, wore their uniforms, kept the dugout and were prepared to play, regardless of one’s role. Then, the coaches emphasized the fundamentals and drilled, drilled, drilled.
After practicing together at fields in Rifle, Rangely and Silt, the boys headed to Grand Junction and the District 1 Tournament. It became evident in the first game that these 13 youngsters might have something special. Playing in a tournament with teams from bigger towns and cities that enjoyed deeper pools of talent, CRV surprised many by dominating right from the start. The CRV team blew past Grand Mesa Little League 12-2 in four innings in their opener. In game two, they dispatched local rival Three Rivers Little League of Glenwood Springs 18-8. Next up were the All-Stars from Delta, who never had a chance as Olivas pitched a one-hitter to lead CRV to a 14-0 victory that put CRV in the championship game versus the select team from Monument.
In the final, CRV came out fast in their first at bats and took an 8-0 lead. Monument would claw back to even the score at 11-11 after three full innings. Faced with their first challenge of the tournament, the CRV team responded, winning 17-13 to secure CRV’s first ever district title.
Although the Colorado River Valley Little League has sent teams of young all-stars to the district tournament for years, this current group of 8-10 year olds is the first to ever win a title and qualify for the state tournament. As players and families also quickly discovered, winning can come at a price. Suddenly family schedules were thrown into chaos as parents had to decide how they could arrange a last minute vacation and afford it as well. The CRV team stepped up to raise funds. Once again they defied odds, going door-to-door, setting up donation tables at City Markets and even serving hot dogs at other locations. Their fundraising message was simple: “Please join our team!” They combined their money with what parents and community members had donated and raised enough funds to cover their complete traveling and lodging expenses. For many of the boys, they began to feel for the first time the support of community members who showed their pride by donating or simply wishing them success. Most of these donors were strangers, but happy for the local boys. One could sense that they were bringing people 110 miles apart much closer together.
With funds in hand, families in tow, and blessed with good wishes from their communities, the newly minted District 1 champions pulled into Thornton as one of four remaining teams still playing baseball in mid-July.
Game one for CRV was played at Northern Lights Ball Field. The District 1 champs drew the All-Stars from North Boulder, who not only served as host of the tournament, but were the defending state champions. Although the CRV team had not played for more than two weeks, they seemed to start off just as they had at districts. Drawing first at bats as the visiting team, the first two batters, Magnuson and Olivas, drew walks and Slade promptly drove in Magnuson to stake an early lead. Olivas then pitched a scoreless first inning and it appeared that CRV would be on its way to another surprising win. CRV added to its lead in the top of the second as Browning and Deming walked and scored on hits from Kramer and Magnuson. But North Boulder started to find its groove in their half of the second, batting thru the lineup to score three runs and closing the gap to 5-3 after two full innings. Brock Bodam took the mound for North Boulder in CRV’s top of the third and allowed only one run after a leadoff walk to Roberts. Then things began to unravel for the CRV team. North Boulder came out swinging and after five hits, three hit batsmen, and two errors, North Boulder took the lead 9-6. Although they scratched together five more runs in the last two innings, led by Winkler’s two hits and two RBIs, to keep pace with North Boulder’s three additional runs, it was not enough. The heartbreaker would come in the top of the fifth with two outs and the bases loaded. Slade took a 2-2 pitch and lined it toward short. Too hot for the shortstop to handle, it appeared that CRV would rally to retake the lead. But the runner on second would be called out for interference, ending the inning and the rally. CRV stranded two more runners in the top of the sixth and suffered their first loss of the summer, 12-11.
But, once again, aided by the strength of their new found teamwork and the ability of others to step up when some teammates struggled, CRV showed it was able to challenge till the last out of the game. While the usually dependable bats of Slade, Markovitch, Roberts and Villapando struggled to dominate as they did at district, others like Browning, Deming, Winkler and Magnusson found ways to get on and score. Now, thrown into the loser’s bracket, parents were curious to see how their boys would respond. The CRV team stayed true to their mature character and looked to rebound. Team captain Jakson Slade put it simply, “We’re okay. We know we can play better.” Finley Deming, who would go on to catch every inning of every game played at district and state, backed up his teammate Slade, “I know I can play better and want to do it for my coaches.”
For Sunday’s elimination game, the team faced the All-Stars from Cortez, who committed nine errors and struggled in their opener against Arapahoe Little League, losing 10-3.
Once again CRV started off in a familiar pattern: Magnuson led off with a single to be knocked in by team RBI leader Slade. Yet, it was not to be CRV’s day. Cortez came out on fire in their half of the first and when the dust had settled, they had a 4-1 lead that would balloon to a 10-1 score after two full innings.
They didn’t give up and narrowed the score with walks from Browning and Carlson and RBIs from Slade and Olivas. But CRV would painfully leave the bases loaded in both the fourth and fifth innings as Cortez held on to keep their season alive with a 12-7 win.
As the game ended and it began to sink in to players and fans alike that their magical carpet ride had come to an end, there were some tears; mostly from parents who had seen their boys achieve more than any other 8-10 year old CRV team ever had. The pride they felt as they watched their sons come together to create not only a competitive team, but to see them learn and experience the rewards of perseverance, work ethic, dealing with pressure, playing hard to the end, and learning to be as gracious in victory as in defeat, would leave them filled for a lifetime.
Coach Magnuson could simply not get over “how well these kids played for each other. I wish we could keep playing.” For rookie coach LaRoque, he found out that he drew great strength from the boys, realizing that “they made me a better coach and person. I cannot believe what an experience this has been.” In his 20 years of coaching kids, coach Slade has “never seen a group of boys come together as well as these boys. It was an honor to coach them.”
For the CRV team their dreams of a state championship may have eluded them on the Front Range, but their futures are bright.
Photos by Tina Winkler