Fun’s the name of the game
By Dean Backes
Tonganoxie's Recreation League Junior Boys baseball team has been making a habit of having fun and winning tons of baseball games in the process.
In a day and age when athletes have been taking their sport a bit too seriously, at times, the team of fifth- and sixth-graders has proven that you can have fun and still play winning baseball.
"We teach our kids to go out and try to have fun every game," co-head coach Wendell Espeland said of his championship team. "Our guys were pushing and shoving each other, and laughing and giggling before the (championship) game. Just having a lot of fun and staying loose. But Bonner Springs kids came in and were all serious."
Though sometimes being focused and serious wins out in big games, Tonganoxie's fun-loving attitude won over in a 9-2 win over Bonner Springs and gave them a sweep of the league and tournament championships.
As is usually the case, there were many heroes during the season, and during the run toward the championship. But none of them stood out more than first year player William Irwin.
Willie, as he is known by his teammates and coaches, had a knack for scoring winning runs in tight games during the season. In fact, he scored the game-winning run in three games this summer.
Irwin also had a big game in the 9-2 championship game win over Bonner Springs. With the score tied 2-2 late in the contest, Willie reached base with a single to become the second Tonganoxie base runner in the inning.
He then scored moments later when Jason Espeland ripped a two-out three-run home run over the 170-foot mark to give Tonganoxie the lead for good at 5-2. Tonganoxie went on to score four more runs in the inning and seal the triumph.
Earlier in the game Willie made a prophet of Espeland when he ran under a fly ball with the score still tied at 2-2. Espeland heard some of the spectators doubt the rookie's ability to catch the ball. But Espeland had complete faith in Irwin and predicted a successful out.
"I knew he'd catch it," Espeland said. "That's what we try to teach them."
According to Espeland, each position on the field was handled by committee the past couple of years. And each player was given the opportunity to play, no matter what his skill level was.
"Every time out, no matter what, all of our kids got their playing time," Espeland said. "If the other team had their best players out there, and we thought another player could do the job better for us, we still kept the players on the field whose turn it was to play.
"Everyone had something to contribute. It was never any one person."
Pitching was no different. Case in point: Zachary Langston had never pitched before, but just before a game earlier this season he decided he'd like to give it a try. So Espeland gave him some warm up throws.
"He's putting a sinker out there that dropped six inches," the coach said. "I told the other coaches that we needed to put him in there."
The result? Langston struck out three of the four batters he faced.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Espeland said. "His first time up he had that stat. No matter what happened after that no one could take that away from him."
Espeland, who teamed with Mickey Newman and Gary Stauch to teach the team all about playing with sportsmanship first, also credited Jonathan Harris for pitching a strong game earlier in the year, and Nathan Stauch for coming in as relief and securing the win.
Tonganoxie, which defeated Edwardsville in the semifinals of the tournament, started the season with a two-run loss, but then rolled through the remainder of their schedule and the tournament undefeated.