VALENTINE — Valentine Post 90 punched its first ticket ever to the Nebraska Senior Legion State Tournament here at Valentine Legion Field over Bridgeport 9-5.
After falling behind early, Valentine pitcher, Jaydon Owen righted the ship and pitched a gutsy game through the final four innings to bring home the title and the trip to Syracuse for the Class C state tourney.
“We just wanted to do this for Lope and Valentine,” Owen said. “We didn’t want to waste this chance.”
“Lope” is Kent Lopez, who has been the Valentine Legion coach since 1978, the math would say 41 years.
In addition, a crowd of over 300 well-wishers were on hand to watch the first area or district tournament ever.
“I think our kids were a little intimidated by the crowd — thank goodness it was mostly our crowd,” Lopez said. “We’ve had a lot more people at funerals out here than we’ve had at baseball games.”
Thant’s not a slight on the hometown crowd. Lopez knows Valentine is about rodeos, ranching, wresting and football.
“The baseball program here has kind of been an afterthought,” Lopez said. “But the kids that come to play baseball really care — or they’re tired of haying on the ranch.”
The Bridgeport Bombers went up 1-0 in the opening frame, then extended the advantage to 3-1 at the end of the fourth before Post 90 woke up.
“I think we were kind of star-struck at the beginning,” Lopez said. “These kids have never played baseball in front of this many people and quite frankly, we were a little tight.”
Everything loosened up after the second inning and Owen found his groove on the hill and the rest of the team found its groove at the plate.
“Max (Renning) told me to keep my curveball down,” Owen said. “I started throwing it in the strike zone and let it fall down to the dirt, that really made a difference.”
But that advice from his coach didn’t hold water to the reason this team extended its season.
“We have really come together the past couple of weeks,” Owen said. “We’re just having a lot of fun and trying to play together as long as we can.”
Owen went the distance, excluding the last out when Lopez had to pull him due to the Legion pitch-count.
He spread nine hits over his six-plus innings of work and struck out 10 Bridgeport batters.
“Jaydon has been kind of sick the past couple of weeks,” Lopez said. “We weren’t sure how long he could go – he really did a good job tonight.”
Valentine scored four runs in the sixth and four in the top of the seventh to take the lead and run away from the bombers.
In the four-run seventh, Valentine got a single then Turner Tinant drew a walk.
Devon Osnes smacked a double over centerfield to chase in a couple of runs before Owen helped his own cause with a single sending Osnes across the plate.
Tagg Buechel hit a single to chase Owen home before the end of the frame and put Post 90 up 9-4.
Lopez understands the importance of this step heading into the state tournament, but remembers his past teams as well.
“We’ve had more talented teams here and ran into some tough teams preventing us from getting to state,” Lopez said. “But this group is really coming together at just the right time — the stars aligned and we’re headed to Syracuse.”
After 41 years of coaching, getting close and spending the summer with Legion teams, Lopez kept his emotions in check when Valentine made the final out.
“I thought we would come into this game and win and I saw myself getting a little teary eyed at the end,” he said. “But we had to battle back and I actually thought for a while this wouldn’t end well.
“It turned out just fine and I appreciate all of the former players who came to watch tonight — I also thank the countless number of people who helped at this tournament. It really took a community to make this happen here in Valentine.
V 001 004 4 – 9 9 4
B 101 101 1 – 5 10 4
WP: Jaydon Owen LP: Barnette
2B: Devon Osnes (V).