The Triumphant Edmond Yankees
In the world of pro sports, the lure of big money continually pulls players from team to team as they look for the biggest payoff. Fans can be fickle, and a ride on an airplane is just another trip to work.
But none of that applies to the Edmond Yankees. This baseball team in the 11-and-under Edmond All Sports league recently returned from a triumphant campaign in Kansas City, where they defeated Chicago’s Illinois Lightning to become the AAA national champions in the USSSA. Earlier this year they won their third, straight Oklahoma state championship and finished the season with a record of 41-5.
Rich Hess, head coach, said there are a number of factors that contributed to his team’s success. “Most of our boys have been together for several years,” Hess said. “I’ve been coaching them since they were four. Some started in T-ball at age four, then three joined the next year. Every year we might have one or two leave and new ones come in.”
That consistency has made the teammates very comfortable with one another. Hess said, “We have a very unusual chemistry. The kids and families get along extremely well. They know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, so there’s no jockeying for position. The kids know their role. We have 12 great kids who all do things well but differently.”
The key, Hess said, is the parents. “They are so supportive of their kids and of me. Everybody has a great time playing together. Adults sometimes lose that focus, but ours get that. Sure, we’re competitive, but not at the expense of the kids enjoying themselves. We have a great set of parents with common philosophies.”
Having watched many of his players from the age of four, Hess said he saw a real difference in the boys this year.
“It seemed to me this year that the boys had more maturity about them,” he said. “We could teach them things that before we didn’t feel like they could learn. They picked things up much quicker and asked me tough questions about situations I didn’t think they would know about yet.”
That maturity was put to the test as the team worked to overcome an attitude problem that plagues many athletes. Hess said developing a mental toughness was vital this season.
“We talked about that a lot this year,” he said. “You have to be mentally tough if you want to excel. You can have talent, but it’s not always the most talented team or child that wins. Our team had a tendency to shut down if they had a bad game. They would check out, or get intimidated. About halfway through this season, though, we noticed a change in our kids. They were no longer intimidated. They learned they could fight back. They really grew mentally.”
They had to be tough to win the championship. Seventy-eight teams went into Kansas City, playing on the Mid American Sports Complex, where the temperature on the artificial turf was sometimes measured at 120 degrees. The Yankees won eight of nine games before defeating the Lightning 8-7 in the finals.
“We had some tough games where we were down in that 100 degree heat,” Hess said. “But we came from behind and won. In previous years we might not have done that.”
Hess said he expects to see most of his team back next year, when they’ll move up to the 12-and-under class. He said they won’t expect to see the same level of competition they’ve faced in winning the state title the past three years.
“The competition does change every year,” he said. “Some teams will pick up a strong kid they found on another team. Invariably, every season we’ll have a new team or two pop up that is more competitive because they made the choice to be more competitive.”
Early this past spring Hess took his team to Houston for a mini spring training. He said, “It gave them a chance to fly on a plane together and feel like the big boys.”
Once there, he asked how many kids wanted to play baseball professionally. “Three or four said they wanted to play pro ball,” he said. “But we had a very good mix of responses of kids who wanted to be doctors, coaches, firemen and other things. As parents, we all have the aspiration they’ll continue to play as long as they want to. We want to keep a love of the game in the kids.
“This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, coach these boys,” Hess said. “Seeing these boys have success is my greatest joy.”