“Go be awesome.”
It was a constant refrain members of the Champlain Valley Little League team heard from coach Mike Niebur every time they took the field.
Every player, every time — he high-fived each and bestowed his baseball benediction: “Go be awesome. Go be awesome. Go be awesome. …”
His players were all 11- and 12-year-olds, an age where admonishment from an adult can travel in one ear and out the other faster than the speed of thought.
But, apparently Niebur’s message found purchase in the minds of the Champlain Valley all-stars, because his players were awesome before and during the state title games on Saturday and Sunday, July 29 and 30, at Schifilliti Field in Burlington.
The team came into the finals of the state-title contest unbeaten in the double-elimination state tournament.
They had lost in the district tournament but played their way back out of the consolation bracket and into the state tournament by winning three games in four days. Their only loss was to Williston. They responded by beating Williston twice to win the district.
The players had reason to be confident, having beaten, St. Johnsbury, their opponent in the title match, 13-0 the previous weekend in a state-tournament game that was called after four innings because of the mercy rule.
Early in the Saturday, July 29, contest it looked like it would only take Champlain Valley one game to take the state title when Ty Niebur knocked a fly to right center for an RBI double.
Around the fourth inning with the score still 1-0 in Champlain Valley’s favor, the weather that had been misting turned to full-on rain. Then a couple of rumbles of thunder joined in.
Having played the required four innings for the game to be official, it was looking like the team made up of all-stars from Charlotte, Shelburne and Hinesburg would take the state championship with a 1-0 win. But the officials opted to continue because no lightning had been seen, and the thunder ceased after just a couple of distant meteorological growls.
In the fifth inning Caleb Decker of St. Johnsbury knocked a two-run homer to put his team in front 2-1.
In the sixth with St. Johnsbury now up 3-1 and threatening to add to its lead with two more runners on, the rain had become a downpour, and the thunder returned closer and more insistent. Some in the crowd said they had seen lightning this time.
Finally, the umpires sent the teams to their bullpens for a rain delay. The delayed game turned into a called game 30 minutes later. The score reverted to 2-1 where it had been after the fifth, the last full inning completed.
The weather for Sunday’s game was perfect for baseball — sunny and comfortably cool.
St. Johnsbury, playing for its first state title since 1985, jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the second inning, but in the sixth Champlain Valley tied the game up at 3-3 to force extra innings. (Little League games are usually six innings.)
With the extra innings came extra excitement. In the top of the seventh, St. Johnsbury jumped back out in front to take a 5-3 lead, but once again Champlain Valley managed to tie it up at 5 all when Holden Rodliff hit a sharp grounder down the right side for two RBIs.
In the ninth inning with two strikes, Maddox Stacey of St. Johnsbury knocked the ball over the fence with two runners on to put his team ahead for the final 8-5 score.
Champlain Valley did not give up and loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth with one out, but once again Stacey came through for St. Johnsbury at short stop, catching a line drive and throwing it to third for a double play to end the game.
Niebur, who has coached Little League for 11 years, said this team was “as gritty as a group of 11- and 12-year-olds could possibly be.”
As St. Johnsbury danced and romped on the field, Champlain Valley players were crestfallen. Many tears were shed. Niebur admitted even he cried, but his tears were shed because of his pride in his team and this special experience they had shared.
“I was really sad that this this portion of our baseball careers have kind of come to an end,” Niebur said. “It really wasn’t about the loss. It was just that this journey had to kind of come to an end for us.”
Only two of his players are 11. The rest are aging out of Little League as 12-year-olds.
“These kids fought hard all weekend and left it all on the field,” he said. “I’m super proud of them and their time, commitment, energy and effort.”
He applauded starting pitcher Reid McAvey of Charlotte who was “lights out” and Braden Cook, also of Charlotte, who did a great job in relief. Cook pitched five shutout innings with nine strikeouts while only giving up one hit.
Another Charlotte Little Leaguer, Evan Dore, had three hits to help keep Champlain Valley in the game. Niebur also applauded Dore’s strong pitching from the day before in rain so hard it was difficult to keep the ball dry.
On Sunday, Max Strauss, Isaac Russell, Pete Stephen, Chase Rodliff, Braden Cook and Holden Rodliff all recorded hits for Champlain Valley on Sunday.
But really, Niebur said, “Every single one of those kids did something positive to contribute and to keep us in that game.”
… And be awesome.