Archive for Wednesday, July 13, 2005

10-U Kansas Rebels ‘do it themselves’

Team builds its own practice field as part of super season

July 13, 2005

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They call it the Field of Dreams.

It's actually the backyard of Mike Nieder, a friend of this year's 10-under Kansas Rebels team.

10-U Rebels coach Mike Willoughby prepares to hit the ball while his team stands ready at the Rebels practice field west of Lawrence on Thursday. The field is on a friend of the team's property.

10-U Rebels coach Mike Willoughby prepares to hit the ball while his team stands ready at the Rebels practice field west of Lawrence on Thursday. The field is on a friend of the team's property.

Nieder doesn't have a child on the team, but he did have a batting cage and a big backyard. And just like the Rebels team, which has gone 30-9 with one tournament win and placed well in several others, people came together to create something special behind Nieder's rural Lawrence home.

"We rounded up the dirt for the infield, and after several weeks we were able to build the Field of Dreams," said Darren McClure, one of the Rebels assistant coaches.

It was McClure and his friend, Nieder, who transformed the backyard into a bona fide practice facility.

Nieder's house lies just west of the Lawrence city limits, near the junction of U.S. Highway 40 and Stull Road. As a result of Nieder's generosity, the Rebels don't have to fight for field space to accommodate their busy practice schedule.

Taking the field

Before every practice McClure hops on Nieder's tractor and drags the infield, loosening up the dirt in preparation for the 10-year-olds with boundless energy who will take the field.

On Thursday afternoon, the Field of Dreams was alive with activity.

Rebels head coach Mike Willoughby was hitting balls to his players while creating fictional game situations.

"Man on second, one down!" Willoughby shouted, coaching the infielders to position themselves accordingly.

Willoughby has known most of his players for a couple years. The core of the team is the 2003 all-star team from the Douglas County Amateur Baseball Assn.'s 8-U league.

Many of them played together as the Lawrence Lightning last year, another DCABA all-star team. But this is the first year that they've had a full season to practice together.

Last year, the Lightning showed signs of what was to come by winning a state tournament in Pittsburg.

Holding it together

Despite their past success, Willoughby said this year's Rebels squad has come together better than anyone could have hoped.

"This team has an uncanny ability that if something goes wrong, they don't let things get them down," he said. "I've seen other teams where if something goes wrong it just falls apart."

They've been able to draw on that quality at crucial times this season, including in a game against a higher-level team.

As a AAA team, the Rebels are one level below a Major team, the top ranking in amateur baseball.

10-U Rebels second baseman Stan Skwarlo goes in the dirt to snare a ground ball during a Rebels practice Thursday at their practice facility west of Lawrence. The team has gone 30-9 this season.

10-U Rebels second baseman Stan Skwarlo goes in the dirt to snare a ground ball during a Rebels practice Thursday at their practice facility west of Lawrence. The team has gone 30-9 this season.

In a game against the Major team from Kansas City, the Rebels were down 1-0 the entire game. The opposing pitcher had struck out 15 Rebels' batters.

"He was big and he threw hard," Willoughby said.

But the Rebels stayed close and, in the final inning of regulation they tied the game and went on to win it in extra innings.

What made that victory even sweeter was the Rebels actually started out as a AA team. But after winning the Frank White Negro League Baseball tournament in May, they were bumped up to the AAA level.

The team has seen its share of adversity this season. Matt Baker was hit in the eye with a dart early in the season and Stan Skwarlo was out for a few weeks with pneumonia. Both have now returned to the lineup.

Positive numbers

The players have put together some impressive statistics over the course of this year's campaign.

Jacob Caldwell, who has a team-high batting average, leads the team in hits and stolen bases and is second on the team in runs scored.

Kyle McFarland has pitched the most innings for the Rebels and has a 4-0 record.

Alex Green has been steady on the mound all season, and has racked up a 7-0 record while also hitting the most doubles of any Rebel this season.

The Rebels defense is anchored by Shane Willoughby at shortstop and Drew Green at catcher.

Willoughby has consistently wowed spectators with his glove work while putting up big offensive numbers.

Opposing base runners trying to run on Green have learned the hard way about his throwing ability.

The team is facing its biggest test at the Super Series National Championships in Broken Arrow, Okla., which began on Sunday. In the tournament, they are competing against 30 of the best teams from around the country.

Running the team

It hasn't just been a fun ride this season for the ballplayers. Coaches and parents alike have enjoyed the experience of being around the team.

"We have a good mix of guys," Willoughby said about the four coaches. "I get kind of wound up but the other guys settle me down."

While Willoughby is the most vocal, the assistant coaches help out in more subtle ways. Kevin Stuever and Joe Caldwell spend time on the Internet looking up situational plays. Their bunt defense comes from something that Caldwell found online.

McClure maintains the Field of Dreams in addition to his coaching duties, and manager Scott McFarland handles the administrative side of running a baseball team.

Transcending age

Also at the practice on Thursday were three Rebels mothers, hanging out and savoring a patch of shade in the muggy evening. Each has her own fond memories of the season. MJ Clapp and Julie Rea remember times when their sons, Garrick Clapp and Aaron Rea, hit balls that cleared the fences.

And Renee Green, Alex Green's mother, loves to watch the kids enjoying themselves when they're off the field.

She recalled being in Ottawa where the boys were competing in a tournament.

"They were so serious on the field and then at the park afterwards they were just 10-year-olds playing," Green said.

Clapp was also impressed with the players' ability to transcend their ages on the field.

"It's awesome, they're really fun to watch," Clapp said. "You forget how old they are with some of the plays they pull off."

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