It’s a team thing: San Jac enjoys JUCO’s work with Challenger program
Before the coaches at San Jacinto College-North (Texas) accept any district championship trophy — and they’ve won plenty — they make two phone calls.
One is to longtime JUCO team host Mike Anton, the other is to Carma Brown, who coordinates the Grand Junction Challenger Baseball program.
The Gators and head coach Tom Arrington want to make sure they’re Challenger buddies, players who serve as partners during a baseball game for intellectually or physically disabled youths.
“It’s a very heartwarming relationship for us,” Arrington said. “When we first talked to Carma to participate in this, I don’t know that we knew exactly what to expect. Now, it’s one of the biggest drives for us to get out here. It’s one of those factors. We’re still here to perform well and play baseball and compete for a national championship, but this gives us some inspiration to get there.”
Arrington said the relationships they’ve built with Challenger players have lasted.
“We really enjoy playing with the Challenger kids, meeting them and playing baseball and seeing their smiling faces and seeing their parents’ smiling faces and even our own kids’,” Arrington said.
“It’s such a caring relationship. We have players whose Twitter accounts are still photos of them with their Challenger buddies. We have correspondence between Challenger buddies and players from years ago that still goes on. It’s not a one-time relationship. It’s a long-lasting bond for our kids and the Challenger kids.”
For Brown, the relationships and consistency are key.
It’s nice having San Jacinto return, Brown said, because all kids — but especially kids with special needs — love consistency.
Kelvin Ramos is a 2014 San Jacinto graduate who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He played for the Ogden Raptors in the Pioneer League last summer. After Ramos played in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series, he gave his Challenger buddy, Seth Dunham, his game-worn cleats.
Brown said there are countless stories of players who have bonded with Challenger players, particularly at San Jacinto.
“San Jac is here all the time, so our kids have really grown to love them,” Brown said.
The Reivers have won three JUCO World Series titles and have appeared 16 times, the second-most of any program in the tournament’s history. It’d be easy to think they have longstanding traditions and, to some degree, they do.
But with the two-year turnover of players and near-constant reshuffling of rosters, Iowa Western Community College coach Marc Rardin has encouraged teams to build their own tradition.
To indicate this, Rardin and Iowa Western adopted a team theme signifying that each new season is a new team. In the 42nd year of baseball at Iowa Western, the Reivers use #Team42 to describe this year’s team.
Coaches and players have used the hashtag on motivational posts, and well-wishes to teammates and fans.
Since 2011, the Reivers have gone through the Grand Junction Challenge.
As a YouTube video of the intense conditioning program spells out in blocky white letters: “It’s (sic) sole purpose is to separate the undecided from the committed in a ritual every Reiver must pass and no Reiver wants to repeat…”
Players can be seen running with railroad ties or tires over their heads along the warning tracks and doing burpees (a full-body exercise) in the bullpen — with coaches watching carefully to make sure players touch an overhanging ledge on each jump. Another challenge is two players in a tug-of-war over tires or towels, battling in what looks more like wrestling than baseball. Another player pulls an ATV — driver and all — up the third base-line.
No one in the tournament may be more of a slave to routine than Jacky Andreatta, the head trainer for the Wranglers.
The 35-year-old Andreatta is committed to routine, especially when Cisco is winning. That was especially the case during the Wranglers’ run this year to JUCO at the Southwestern District tournament in Midland, Texas, when Andreatta had his routine down to the steps he took.
When Cisco was at the plate, he would stand on the end of the dugout farthest from the plate with his right foot firmly planted on the second step, and his left foot glued to the third step. And when the Wranglers were pitching, he’d move to the other side of the dugout and switch feet.
It’s not the same for every game, but he’ll continue to do whatever he was doing at the time Cisco starts a run-scoring rally or extends an opponent’s scoreless streak.
“If I’m chewing a piece of bubble gum and we start doing good, I’ll keep chewing that piece of bubble gum the entire game,” he said.
It even comes down to the clothes. Andreatta wore the same khaki shorts, blue athletic training shirt and red undershirt during every game of the district tournament. But Andreatta’s student assistant, Nestor Cruz, wore a gray athletic training shirt to the game to Cisco’s first district title game against Midland.
Midland took a 3-1 lead in the top of the sixth inning, but Cisco rallied for a 4-3 win in 10 innings and, the next day, beat Midland 9-6 to earn a trip to JUCO. But after the extra-inning win, Andreatta lectured his assistant.
“I told him, ‘I noticed you wore a gray shirt today,’ ” Andreatta said. ” ‘There in the sixth inning, I almost made you go back to the hotel and change.’ “
Sentinel reporter Jon Mitchell contributed to this story.