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Jackson's little league success on the road to something big
Jackson's boys of summer, the 11-year-old state little league champs, don't play for glory or multimillion-dollar contracts. They play to have fun and enjoy the game.
They play in a town where high school football is almost a religion, a town where most children want to be the next tough linebacker, the next bruising running back.
But if guys like Chase Crowden and Bobby Clark keep playing like they're playing, Jackson might just become a baseball town, too.
A close-knit band of 13 selected baseball players are on their way to Boonville, Mo., today to compete in a Midwest regional baseball tournament.
The community of Jackson has already shown its support by giving $3,000 over the last two days as players have collected money to offset the costs of hotel expenses in Boonville. They stood at the four-way stop at Hope and Main streets during peak traffic hours and collected donations. They also collected money at Wal-Mart.
The trip to Boonville will be about a four-hour journey, but the young Indians have already gone on quite a ride.
It all started with a 6-1 loss to Scott City in the first round of the district tournament.
"We just didn't show up to play," said Chase, a second baseman, pitcher, team jokester and official owner of the team's rally monkey mascot.
The loss put the Indians in the loser's bracket, but they rebounded, sweeping the rest of the games in the district.
The boys, all picked by their coaches from league play, have only been together about two weeks. But most of them played together for a traveling team last year when they took second place at state.
At this year's state tournament in Washington, Mo., Jackson dominated, outscoring its opponents 47-1.
When asked what makes this team so successful, teammates responded in one of two ways: We get along. And we hit.
"We're playing more as a team this year," said Ryan Sprandel, who plays second base or right field, depending on who is pitching.
About that time, Logan Bartels chimed in.
"We just support each other, pat each other on the back," he said.
Parents agree that camaraderie is perhaps the team's biggest strength.
"When the team is cold, all it takes is one good solid hit and the rest feed off each other," assistant coach Mike Eftink said.
Added parent Tony Artadi, "I think they just like each other a lot and don't want to let each other down."
Ron Clark, the team's manager, has placed an emphasis on sportsmanship and the youngsters seem to be buying in.
Teammates don't get discouraged when someone makes a mistake. They give high fives to the player who comes in as their substitute. They hustle.
They don't throw their helmets or use foul language or misbehave in motels. There are consequences for such actions, and these boys want to play ball too much to lose their cool. Parents from other teams complimented Jackson's parents on how well the team behaved in the state tournament.
To use a St. Louis phrase, it's baseball like it oughta be.
The team has solid hitters up and down its lineup. Anyone can start a rally in any inning, although it is unclear exactly how much impact Chase's stuffed monkey has played in the team's success.
The team is defensively adept as well. Ron Clark puts a lot of emphasis on defense. Mason Sander, talking with a black eye he received from losing a pop fly in the lights at a recent practice, made two diving catches in the outfield in the state tournament. He said the team is looking to win, but won't be too disappointed if they don't.
"It's a big accomplishment just to get there," he said.
The $3,000 in donations collected by the team will more than pay for the hotel rooms. Eftink said some of the money will be used to treat the players to a celebration meal after the tournament. The rest will likely be donated back to the little league.
Unofficial mascot: The rally monkey
Indians record: 8-1
The tournament: Opening ceremonies today. Teams are guaranteed three games and will be divided into two pools. The top two teams from both pools will play in the tournament semifinals. They begin play on Friday. This will be the final tournament for the Indians. The Little League World Series competition doesn't begin until the boys turn 12.
Tournament site: Boonville, Mo.
States participating: Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas. (Because Boonville is the host city, Boonville is also representing Missouri.)
Coaches: Ron Clark, Mike Eftink and Nate Crowden
Quotable: "We just encourage each other, keep each other up. If somebody messes up, we just say we'll get it next time." -- outfielder Matt Sander