In 1988, the Norfolk Juniors went into the area tournament as one of the top three seeds.

They left the tournament, which back then was single elimination, with the championship after defeating host Grand Island in the final.

After a shaky start in the first round of the state tournament, Norfolk wound up winning its first two games and reaching the final before falling to Kearney 7-1 in the championship game.

One of the members of that team was Tom Sullivan, who will always cherish being able to bring Norfolk its first area tournament title since the early 1970s.

“I remember how awesome it was when we won districts,” said Sullivan, who is the head coach of this year’s state-bound Norfolk Juniors team. “I remember going into state nervous and I remember how we just kept plugging and we didn’t lose until that championship game.”

Sullivan is one of five boys in his family, all of whom were baseball players. Three of them, including himself, went on to play college baseball while another would play college football.

Sullivan played at Neosho Community College in Kansas, then transferred to the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

After college, he knew he could help the Norfolk baseball program, but with three daughters and a son, Easton, who now plays shortstop for today’s Juniors, the timing wasn’t quite right.

However, once his son was old enough to play, Sullivan found himself back in coaching. At the same time, he felt the pressure of taking the program to new heights and decided that, if it was going to happen, he would need to start the players early.

It began with a philosophy taught to Norfolk’s baseball players, then between the ages of 7 and 9. If they learned key components of the game, they would compete for championships at the high school level.

“I felt like I had the tools to help Norfolk get to that point, to change the landscape of Norfolk baseball,” Sullivan said.

It’s gotten off to a good start with Legion ball. Now the hope is that it translates to the high school team.

“That’s the next step, competing for championships at that level,” he said. “And I think we’re on the right track.”

Usually, there are two American Legion teams in town; the Juniors and the Seniors. However, before the season began, it was determined that there would not be enough players to field a Seniors team. If there was, it would have forced several underclassmen to face much more difficult competition.

The decision was not easy for the board members to make, as it involved telling longtime participants in Norfolk baseball that they couldn’t play because they weren’t eligible.

“It was very, very difficult,” Sullivan said. “Lots of emotions came out during that.”

Because a lot of those who would have moved up to the Seniors were now with the Juniors, Darrel Bradley, who serves as the Seniors coach and is head of the Legion board, saw the potential to win a lot of games.

The Juniors, who enter state 31-14, have done just that.

Whether it’s players with whom Sullivan has worked for years like Easton, Jacob Colligan, Sawyer Wolff and Anden Schold or younger players like Noah Hinrichs, Ethan Synovec, Braylon Votta and Wes Koenig, the team has met each challenge head on and answered the call each time.

“They’ve come together as a team. They’ve battled through some adversity. We’ve lost some tough games. We’ve won some tough games,”Sullivan said. “Through all of that, these boys have just excelled and they just continue to get better and they love playing baseball.”

Although many of them play multiple sports, the players are largely baseball guys through and through and, as a result, have an IQ for the game and a camaraderie that translates to the diamond.

“They’re just playing, truly, because I think they love the guys standing next to them,” Sullivan said. “They’ll do whatever it takes to help get that next man up and do whatever it takes to win.”

Because there was only one Legion team, it meant that those who would usually coach the Seniors ended up joining the Juniors, including Bradley. At first, Sullivan wondered how the staff would be able to handle that many voices in the dugout, but it’s paid off so far.

It’s especially the case between Bradley and Sullivan, who have different approaches to coaching. Bradley tends to be more laid back whereas Sullivan wears his emotions on his sleeves.

“Darrell always says we’re kind of opposite in how we do things, but we feel like that is what has helped this team,” Sullivan said, “because I might get after somebody and then (Bradley) will say, ‘Hey here’s the deal. This is why coach is upset. This is what you have to fix.’ ”

Another big help has been Jack Borgmann, who will begin his senior year at Norfolk High in August.

Borgmann was one of the better baseball players in the state heading into the spring season with the Panthers, but his season was cut short when he tore the muscle off of a bone in his leg and the doctors recommended he not play Legion ball.

The coaches then decided to get Borgmann on the staff to help out.

“How great is it to have a guy who’s going to be a senior in high school and he’s the guy who these Juniors look up to?” Sullivan said.

Having more coaches allows them to zero in on a part of the game they know best. For example, Bradley was a pitcher in college so he works with the pitchers. Sullivan himself works with outfielders.

“We welcome anything anybody can bring and so having these six guys coach, it’s been phenomenal,” Sullivan said. “I feel like that is a big reason why we’re playing in the state tournament.”

To compete with teams whose individual talent is tremendous, Sullivan finds it crucial that Norfolk works together now more than ever.

“We are where we’re at because of our whole team,” he said. “Everybody on the team has to be working together in order for us to really compete and beat these elite teams that are coming out of Lincoln and Omaha.”

Above all, Sullivan is happy to see the hard work this group has put in finally pay off and he expects it to continue for years to come.

“This happening right now is many, many, many years of hard work from these boys’ standpoint and doing what we’ve asked them to do, and I expect to continue this way,” he said. “I expect this program to continue to win.”

Norfolk opens up the Class A state tournament against host Kearney Post 52 on Saturday at 7 p.m.

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