It wasn’t easy, but an all-star team made up of players from Chadron’s revitalized men’s summer softball program won the Class D championship at the Nebraska Slow Pitch Softball Tournament the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, July 27 and 28 in Hastings.
Wearing bright red uniforms with white MC letters on the chest and sponsored by the Chadron Medical Clinic, the champs won all three of their games on Saturday and their first contest on Sunday.
Those scores, in order, were 14-1 over Jersey’s Sport Bar of Kearney, 15-7 over WeDeBoys of Alliance, 24-13 over the Fantastics of Kearney and 19-9 over Leth’s of Broken Bow after the score was tied 7-7 through four innings.
However, during its second game on Sunday, the Chadron team failed to wrap up the title when Pioneer Auto from South Sioux City scored six times in the top of the seventh inning for a 16-12 verdict.
Since Pioneer Auto had lost early in the competition, each team now had one loss and they had to tangle again to decide the winner.
When Pioneer Auto jumped out to a 9-2 lead after three innings, things looked bleak for the Chadron team. But, as Yogi Berra might have said, it’s never over until it’s over.
The MCs tallied the next 11 runs, scoring twice in the fourth, four times in the fifth and five times in the sixth to take a 13-9 lead and went on to win 16-11.
“They took a big lead early in the second game. But we got some timely hitting in the late innings and pulled it out,” said Dr. Jerry McLain, who has been the enthusiastic leader of the Chadron team from the start.
This was its fifth state championship in the past 10 years.
It all started in 2009, when Dr. McLain, an NAIA All-American baseball player at Mayville State in North Dakota as well as a basketball standout and a starting cornerback on the football team for a season after he’d already been accepted into medical school in the 1970s, wanted to play on a team with his four sons.
So, as they concluded their American Legion eligibility and after it proved difficult to find enough “town teams” in the region to build a reliable baseball schedule, he turned to slow pitch softball.
The first year, the “new team from out West” finished second in its division. It won state championships in 2010, 2011 and 2013, moving up a division after each title. The third verdict put the MCs in the top division. They didn’t win all the marbles either of the next two years, but third time was charm in 2016, when they finished with a 5-0 record at state.
Each of the past two years the Chadron crew went 2-2, but they again made the most of their third opportunity by winning this year’s crown.
Dr. McLain noted that there was plenty of competition this year with 16 teams in the Class D bracket, including several from Kearney and Omaha along with those from Alliance, Broken Bow, Grand Island, Hastings, Lincoln, Norfolk, North Platte and South Sioux City.
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As the 2019 champion, the Chadron team will have to move up to Class C, the highest classification, next summer. That bracket had just five participants this year.
Besides Dr. McLain’s sons Josh, Joe, Jake and Jonn, the other team members the past few years have been brothers Rick and Mitch Barry, brothers Jackson and Kyle Dickerson along with Casey Kuhnel, Thye deKoning and two former Hay Springs Hawks, Darren Drabbels and Isaac Hughes.
“Our team has good athletes who can run,” Dr. McLain said. “Because of the speed, we run the bases well and usually play great defense. This year we had a few more bobbles than usual, but we probably hit better and had more timely hits than usual. We scored exactly 100 runs and 40 of them came with two outs. Just about everybody had some key hits.”
All but one of Chadron’s 10 starters reached base at least 13 times during the tourney. Joe McLain led the way by getting aboard 21 times, followed by Kyle Dickerson with 20. Joe also scored the most runs with 14, followed by Jackson Dickerson with 13 and Darren Drabbels and Kyle Dickerson with 12, followed by Jake McLain, 11, and deKoening and Hughes with 10 each.
Now primarily the third base coach, Dr. McLain said slow pitch softball is fast moving and cerebral.
Most games are completed in a less than an hour and they’re not home run derbies. After two round-trippers have been hit in a game, other balls belted over the fence are outs. So are fouls after the batter has two strikes.
“It doesn’t do much good to hit a solo homer,” Dr. McLain said. “We like to hit them when two or three guys are on base in the late innings. Some teams are so loaded with power hitters that hitting too many homers is a problem for them.”
Pitching is also an art, Dr. McLain said. He added that Rick Barry, who has been the team’s only hurler the last eight or so years, is one of the best because he is able to “tease” the batters by placing the ball along the edges of the plate.
“There’s only so much a pitcher can do because the ball comes to the plate so slow, but once in a while I get somebody to chase a pitch that they’re uncomfortable with,” Barry explained.
Although five championships in 10 years has changed the landscape, Dr. McLain said because of its location the Chadron team formerly entered the tournament as an unknown. He thinks it has represented the West well.
“We don’t get in the other teams’ faces or argue with the umpires,” he said. “We get quite a few compliments for our sportsmanship and rather low-key approach.”
This year’s championship had a special meaning to the team members. They dedicated the trip to the memory of Brent Bargen, the former Chadron State College men’s basketball coach who died of cancer on May 12 while living in Lincoln.
Bargen was a member of several of the state-bound teams. They took along his No. 9 uniform top, and displayed it when the team photo was taken after the championship trophy was presented.
During the games, the players also wore green wristbands with the word “Bargs” on them.