Vernon 9-10 All-Stars embody true spirit of Little League

VERNON — They were supposed to be getting ready for a District 8 Little League 9-10 tournament game. But instead, they were slipping and sliding around in the rain with their friends and family.

After a mix up cost the Vernon All-Stars a trip to the elimination round and a chance to compete for a district title, dedicated parents and young athletes came together one last time to celebrate a successful season that ended a bit prematurely.

“That was the night where I had to withdraw,” manager Wayne Opdenbrouw said of the bittersweet practice, “after telling them the night before that they were going, and crushed their aspirations. We decided to have a post season batting practice in the rain, the kids had a blast and left with smiles on their faces.”

Vernon was in a three-way tie for the top spot in their pool and was told prior to facing South Windsor in the pool finale Wednesday, July 9, another team tied for the top spot, that all three would advance to the elimination round. The team trailed South Windsor by a large margin when rain postponed the game.

“We found out a couple minutes before the rest of the game that win or lose we advance,” Pete Walsh, the Vernon Little League Vice President, whose son is on the team, said. “After the loss, we then told the boys great job, it doesn’t matter, we are moving on and advancing.”

Opdenbrouw received email confirmation from the District 8 Administrator, which was followed by a confirmation phone call that three pool teams would advance.

Later that night, around 10 p.m., the entire team awaited the brackets for the elimination round, knowing that games could start as soon as the next day. When it was finally released, Vernon was not in the bracket.

Opdenbrouw and Walsh stayed up until after midnight trying to resolve the issue to avoid having to tell the kids that they would not be advancing.

“The following morning I even went as far as to call Eastern Regional of Little League International,” Opdenbrouw said, “who after 40 minutes told me that there was nothing they could do.”

But in the face of devastating news, the team and community came together with the same dedication that they carried with them through the entire season.

“I never had to answer the question, ‘Coach when is practice over,’” Opdenbrouw said looking back at the hard work his boys put in. “Time seemed to expire before we noticed it and all they wanted to do was keep playing. This attitude would later be proof positive in our ‘Last Batting Practice.’”

The coach told his team to focus on the positives. On the 49 official hits the team collected, the 44 strikeouts tallied by the pitching staff, two batters with hits in all five games and one more with hits in four of five.

“I expected some tears and maybe a why,” Opdenbrouw said, “but they seemed to choke them back. One of my boys, profoundly said, ‘Coach, can we be on the team next year?’ To which I responded, ‘you have to try out each year, but you all have preference as returning players.’ I couldn’t believe how adult they were facing this adversity. I certainly will lobby for each one of them to return.”

Fitting, of course, was the rain that began to fall as one last batting practice began.

“At the end, we were hitting balls in the rain and it became a light moment,” Walsh said. “We all had some fun and were sliding around in the dirt and playing in puddles. It’s been a long and tough 24 hours.”

The experience of managing these kids, which Opdenbrouw points out required just “a little fine tuning on my part and with my fellow coaches,” was an overwhelming opportunity, and one he will never forget.

“Our parents were offered for purchase, ‘Fan T Shirts,” the manager said. “These shirts were inscribed their child’s last name and jersey numbers in the Vernon blue and gold. During practice before the game, their children would wear the same shirts to warm up, before putting their sacred uniform jerseys on just before the game to keep them sharp. They would proudly hang these jerseys at the front of the dugout, out of respect for the game and I guess in sort of a squared away, imposing way to the other team. The sense of commitment and pride was overwhelming, at least for me. Imagine bleachers full of parents wearing their child’s, brother’s, nephew’s, number and name, it was a sight.

The team finished with a 3-2 record, with run outputs of 15 runs twice 13 in their All-Star opener.

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