Legion takes fourth at state tournament

Coach Paul Fortunato waved home Dillon McTague in the sixth inning of Rio Blanco County’s first game Friday. After scoring, McTague was called out when umpires ruled he didn’t touch third base.
Coach Paul Fortunato waved home Dillon McTague in the sixth inning of Rio Blanco County’s first game Friday. After scoring, McTague was called out when umpires ruled he didn’t touch third base.

RBC I It wasn’t the showing they were hoping for, but just the fact they made to it to state was quite an accomplishment.
Rio Blanco County’s American Legion baseball team finished fourth at last weekend’s state tournament in Craig, winning one game and losing two.
“It was a high level of competition. The teams were pretty evenly matched,” said RBC coach Paul Fortunato, who also coached the Rangely Senior High baseball team in the spring. “But there weren’t any teams I didn’t think we could keep up with. It just wasn’t our weekend. We battled umpires and we battled ourselves.”
In both of its losses — to Fleming and Fort Morgan — Fortunato disagreed with umpires’ calls, which proved to be turning points in the games’ outcomes.
“I could argue until I was blue in the face, but it didn’t matter. They weren’t going to listen,” Fortunato said. “I’m not blaming the umpires. We definitely made our share of blunders. We had some terrible calls, but we fought ourselves more than we fought anyone else.”
Rio Blanco County was forced to play two games Friday, after losing its opener 9-6 against Fleming. One of the key calls came in the bottom of the sixth when RBC had apparently scored the go-ahead run, but umpires ruled Dillon McTague didn’t touch third base. In another controversial call, an umpire ruled Chaz Byerly was out at home on a squeeze play in the bottom of the third.
“We had the momentum shift saying he didn’t touch the bag and then the squeeze at home,” Fortunato said.
After losing to Fleming, Rio Blanco County had to turn around and play Steamboat Springs. RBC won 15-7 to stay alive in the double-elimination tournament.
In the game against Fort Morgan on Saturday, a triple play in the fifth inning was overruled by the home-plate umpire.
“We got a triple play and the ump behind the plate overturns the catch,” Fortunato said. “They ended up scoring six runs, and we were ahead at that point. They just came alive and it shifted the momentum.”
Rio Blanco County almost pulled off a big comeback, scoring seven runs to pull within two in the last of the seventh inning against Fort Morgan, but three players struck out with the bases loaded.
“We just couldn’t piece it together. Not everybody was clicking at the same time,” Fortunato said. “It just wasn’t our weekend.”
Most of the players on the RBC team had been members of the Rangely Senior High baseball team. Players from Coal Ridge, Grand Valley, Meeker and Vernal, Utah, filled out the roster.
“The heart and soul of this team is Rangely kids, but they all got along great,” Fortunato said of the combined team. “I had absolutely no issues with any of the kids. They never got in trouble.”
One of the loaner players — B.J. Hanberg of Vernal — was named most valuable player of the state tournament.
“He’s a great kid,” Fortunato said. “He had a great tournament.”
Hanberg batted .500, hit two home runs, had six RBIs and five runs scored.
Fortunato, himself a former baseball player for Rangely, is pleased to see the local programs get back to the level of success he was accustomed to as a player.
“It’s been down, but we’re getting it back,” said Fortunato, who graduated from Rangely High School in 2000. “We used to live and die this stuff. It was a bad year if we didn’t go to regionals or state. We’re not where we used to be, but everybody is starting to buy into it and they want to be involved. That’s the way it was when I grew up.”
After winning all four of its games the week before to become district champions, Fortunato was hoping the momentum would carry over to state.
“Honestly, if we were playing like we did last weekend, these were all teams we could beat,” the RBC coach said. “We just couldn’t get it going. But, they still had a heckuva season.”