Minnesota State Champs 2013

I love stories where the underdogs win. Especially when the underdogs have huge hearts. Especially when one of them is my own kid.

Yep. Ryder’s baseball team won the state championship yesterday. Un-freaking-believable.

After playing on regular season teams (Brad coached Ryder’s team again), these kiddos came together about six weeks ago to represent their league on a traveling team, playing against other 10-year-olds in our metro area. Most of those teams represent one school district, eventually feeding into one high school team, and had been playing in tournaments throughout the spring and summer. But our players come from different schools and several different districts; a mishmash of good kids and four great coaches who made fun and sportsmanship their priorities. And they play and practice here – I kid you not – at Optimists Field:

The team from Optimists Field

We’ve seen some ugliness in the system already, playing some of the long-established teams with cutthroat coaches, cocky players, rude fans. Our coaches (all dads of players) pushed the kids to excel, but were also so effusive and frequent in their praise. When a kid got down or even cried following a tough inning or play, there was always a coach or two there to console him and pump him back up. I never heard one of the boys complain about a teammate dropping the ball or striking out; they were only encouraging of each other – and even affirmed kids on the teams they were playing. One of my favorite moments of their short season was after a game we’d won, seeing Ryder’s teammate Brett chase after a kid on the opposing team in the parking lot just to tell him he’d played well.

These kids had only played a handful of games together when they miraculously qualified for the state tournament. Most of the other 31 qualifying teams had been playing together for months, with dozens of games under their belts, so we were proud of our boys just for making the cut!

After speaking at a conference out east last week, I ducked out early on Friday to hurry home for the state tournament. They were guaranteed two games; I missed the first one on Friday, but wanted to see the Saturday morning game because I figured it would be their last. None of us adults expected that the kids would advance – but I don’t think the kids ever doubted they had it in them. They won Saturday morning…and then Saturday at noon…and then Saturday evening despite awful weather conditions (cold temps, driving rain, wind gusts – gross). Parents rooting for other teams kept walking up, asking where in the world these kids came from – both literally and figuratively.

Ryder and his grandma before the big game

ryder with his grandma before the big game

On Sunday, the boys continued to win. And when there was a break between games midday, we all went for a pizza party – just thrilled they’d made it that far. We were shell-shocked when they won the semifinals – against a team that pulled out all the stops to be an intimidating force. They had alternate uniforms (they didn’t like that their blue jerseys were similar to ours, so changed to white), a tent over their dugout and players who chanted from the bench, constantly trying to throw off our kids. But our boys of summer were just in the flow. My mom and I remarked that the energy was palpable; it felt like joy was propelling them forward.

(Do you remember the old Underdog cartoon? He almost always spoke in rhyme – and that’s exactly what my mom started doing as each kid stepped up to the plate, shouting things like “get one more, 24!” or “hit it to heaven, one-seven!” LOL)

We knew the final opposing team was a total powerhouse and we kept telling our kids that no matter what, we were so proud of them. But right from the start, our kids were on fire. Hitting well, fielding well, pitching well, having fun. But the other team was on our tail. And then came a game-changing moment: Ryder, playing center field, caught a line drive and then gunned that ball all the way to home plate, right into catcher Dominic’s glove, where he tagged a kid out for a double play. The crowd went crazy – and the coach for the opposing team told one of ours they were raising the white flag.

parents celebrating kids

Our kids surged ahead for a 9-5 win – and the state title. We all lost our ever-loving minds, screaming for these kids who came out of nowhere, with big talent and big hearts, to make a childhood dream come true. I’m still tearing up just writing about it, knowing Ryder will always get to say he was part of a championship team – and that it will serve as a reminder to him (and us!) that anything is possible when you believe anything is possible.

The kids from Optimists Field just proved it.