Over the Labor Day weekend, four local baseball players, Slater Podgorny, Presley Pene, Jonathan Gonzalez and Nick Norton, traveled to the Phoenix area. They and their coaches and families were there to compete in the Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Labor Day baseball tournament.
Their teammates, all of them with years of experience, were select members from the North Fork Eagles Triple Crown team, the Golden Grizzlies from Golden, and Ligo Conno, a top-ranked team from Hermosillo, Mexico. They call themselves the TC Drillers.
At the end of the long weekend, the Drillers had won the 12-and-under AAA division of the tournament, which Slater described as "kind of the losers'" level. The USSSA considers it a middle-of-the-pack league. Either way, competition was tough, and the team had never played a game together, although, Slater said, they had played a game of Wiffle ball.
Slater's dad, Greg, a team coach, thought that with the talent they had pulled together from these three teams, they would win more games. But in reality, "They didn't give us a thing, they didn't break down... They were polished."
Until this point, things were pretty laid back for the boys from Colorado, said Podgorny. But this was baseball on a different level. In Arizona, most teams had competed together for several years, and played 50-60 games or more a year, "and they showed it."
"Baseball's definitely a lot tougher out there, because they play all year," said Nick Norton.
So how did the TC Drillers come to be?
It's hard to pinpoint the start of this story, because all of these athletes have played since they were very little. But we'll say it began when a group of players from the local 2010 Cal Ripken league decided at the end of the summer to keep playing baseball. When it got too cold, they moved indoors, and traveled to winter baseball camps. It was suggested to them at a Slammers indoor baseball camp in Denver that they form a Triple Crown team.
Last winter, the North Fork Eagles team was established, with Greg Podgorny as head coach and Eric Norton and Cesar Gonzalez Sr. as assistant coaches, and began training for the 2011 Triple Crown World Series in Steamboat Springs.
Last spring, a coach for the Golden Grizzlies, Richard Chandler, contacted Eric Norton to see if his son Dalton, a pitcher, could try out for the team. The Grizzlies and Eagles had competed in May at the Pikes Peak Challenge. Dalton, 11, is almost six feet tall and wants to make a career out of baseball. As Eric Norton explained, many schools won't consider a player unless he's played 50-60 games a year with a traveling team.
Dalton pitched with the Eagles at a tournament in Utah, and made the team. In turn, Nick got to play in the Colorado Super Series tournament with the Grizzlies, and won the state title.
During the summer, Eagles team members were also playing in the local Cal Ripkin league, and weren't able to practice much as a team. However, their Cal Ripkin team played in the state tournament at Cedaredge, and gained valuable tournament experience.
The Eagles played their first Triple Crown World Series game on Aug. 4
As Slater explains, the Eagles opened the series with a shutout loss to the Las Vegas Heat. The game was used in determining seeding for the tournament. The Eagles dropped to the lower brackets and were to face a Colorado Springs team the following morning, followed by a game against Ligo Conno, which at the time, the team had never even heard of.
"They were the only team from Mexico," said Slater. They were from a small town, just like the Eagles, but they were great players. "We really liked their team."
After Ligo Conno defeated the Eagles, the two teams got to talking, and found that they had a lot in common. For starters, Jonathan Gonzalez' mother, Maria, hails from the Hermosillo area. Since the family speaks Spanish, and Ligo Conno coach, Jose Enrique Montano speaks fluent English, there were no language barriers.
And of course, everyone spoke baseball.
The kids took to each other right away, and shared pizzas and pool time when they weren't playing baseball. Next thing they knew, they were friends.
"It just happened so quickly, so easily," said Podgorny.
Before they knew it, coaches and parents and players were planning to form a team and compete in Arizona and Mexico this fall and winter, since that's when the game is just heating up in the Southwest. When time came for the tournament in Arizona, the team had formed.
There was still the issue of distance to overcome. With the exception of a game of Wiffle ball, "We didn't practice at all before the tournament," said Slater.
The players knew they were up against tough teams, and first-game jitters were a factor in their opening game, a 12-2 loss to the Arizona Black Storm. But the Drillers stuck with it. "We played a lot better the second game," said Slater, and lost 10-6 to the Arizona Warriors.
They were surprised in their third game, when they tied the Arizona Surprise Thunder, 11-11.
Finally, in their fourth game, the Drillers broke their losing streak, defeating the Arizona Desert Dawgs, a team also put together from other teams, 9-3.
They finally won, in 112-degree Arizona heat, wrote Eric Norton in an e-mail. "The boys are celebrating in the pool and eating pizza..."
After all the losses, "It's like getting up on the right side of the bed in the morning," said Nick. "You don't have to explain all the things that went wrong. You can talk about what you did right."
This could be just the beginning of this story. Eric Norton said he plans to commit his time and energy in the traveling team, and hopes that someone will take his place at the local level next summer. The TC Drillers plan to play more tournaments this fall, and are considering a visit to Hermosillo over the holidays. Next spring, they plan a trip to Cooperstown Dream Park, touted as "America's first and foremost youth baseball experiences," to get some games in and tour the National Baseball Hall of Fame.blog comments powered by Disqus