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August 30, 2014

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

Chaparral baseball’s journey to state tournament one of overcoming long odds

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Steve Marcus

Chaparral High School baseball coach David Soto addresses players during the 2013 playoffs.

Chaparral Cowboys in Playoffs

Chaparral's Brian Moya bats during a playoff game against the Boulder City Eagles in Boulder City Tuesday, May 7, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The foul ball landed in the parking lot at Chaparral High and was retrieved by a student walking home from class.

He heaved the baseball about 40 yards back onto the field with such velocity that then first-year coach Dave Soto took notice. He went to recruit the student to become the program’s newest player.

“I yelled out to him, ‘Come on, we need you on the field,’” Soto said. “That is how we found our players. We tried to find someone with a little ability and teach them in a few months what everyone (on other teams) has been doing their whole lives to get them ready for the season.”

Chaparral won just two games that season because it relied on mostly beginners in their first season of baseball. One player, after hitting a fair ball during a game, never bothered to run to first base and stood in the batter’s box waiting for another pitch. He assumed games were just like batting practice.

This season, they are doing more than running to first base. They are scoring. And the Cowboys are doing what most assumed they wouldn’t: Winning.

Chaparral is one of four teams in the Division I-A state tournament, which begins Thursday in Northern Nevada. They haven’t played in state since the 1990s; haven’t won the title since 1991.

Three years ago when Soto took over the program as part of the turnaround project for under-achieving schools, he never dreamed of traveling to a state tournament or winning a championship.

You have to crawl before you can walk.

He wanted to have enough players to field a team, teach them how to properly play the game and give a memorable high school experience to a group of students desperately wanting to be part of something special.

If it required unconventional methods of recruiting players, Soto was willing to go the extra mile. Along the way, something clicked.

Brothers Tyler and Thomas Crone joined the program to give them two of the classification’s best players, and Chaparral was dropped to the more-competitive Division I-A as part of realignment.

Slowly, the players started to gain confidence in their abilities. They started to love baseball, and more important, each other. Last year, they won more than 20 games in Soto’s second season. This year, they are 24-9, won the Sunrise Division title and rallied last week to win a pair of one-run games in the Southern League tournament to qualify for state.

“To see the change, it is ridiculous,” said Chad Clark, a senior pitcher and captain. “We actually care as a team. We come here and work hard. We know every day we have something special.”

Soto says it’s more than the Crone brothers. He talks about the resilience of four-year players Clark, Jose Ortiz and Daniel Herrera for staying in the program when the Cowboys were one of the state’s worst teams. He mentions catcher Clayton Tate, who is just 5-foot-3 and bats less than .200 but has saved the team with his defense.

He talks about sophomore Mark O’Connor, who was expected to be one of their best players after making the all-state team last year as a freshman. But O’Connor hurt his elbow and was told by doctors not to throw or swing a bat. He still attends practice, pinch-runs during games and is ready to lay down a bunt in a close game, epitomizing the team-first mentality at Chaparral.

Soon, Soto has mentioned contributions from everyone on his team, including his assistant coaches. Coaches often preach how success is a team effort, that reserve players are equally important as starters. But that’s mostly lip service to keep bench players engaged.

At Chaparral, Soto means it — everyone plays, every game.

For most games they had 10 or 11 available players, having to promote someone from the junior varsity team as an emergency player. It’s made them a better team because players realize they have to perform for the team to win.

“We just motivated each other to not give up,” Ortiz said. “We worked hard for this and never gave up. It’s a very good way to end (our high school career).”

Some will say Chaparral has no chance of winning this week against state favorite Faith Lutheran. Faith Lutheran has two college-caliber pitchers and beat Chaparral by the 10-run mercy rule in last week’s Southern League championship game.

It’s just the players at Chaparral don’t consider themselves the underdogs. They weren’t supposed to be there and have nothing to lose. They are already winners for qualifying, which isn’t a consolation speech.

Win or lose, the players and their families will have a lifetime memory. They’ll travel by bus to the Reno area, stay at a hotel, eat a new restaurants and potentially play at a college stadium at UNR if they make the state title game. It’s the baseball trip of a lifetime.

“For a lot of us, it will be the first time playing in a stadium,” Clark said. “We have been waiting to play in the big game.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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