Partnership at the plate: Three Rivers Little League’s relationship with high schools has elevated Eagle County baseball
Three Rivers Little League’s relationship with high schools has elevated Eagle County baseball
Gloves popping and bats cracking are not the only similarities between Battle Mountain High School’s after-school practices and the teams which file onto the field afterwards.
“I thought they were coming at 5:30?” coach Harrison Stevens says to his assistant coach as he tosses a ball up and hits a line drive to his players clumped together in the outfield. A minute ago, multi-position star senior Elijah Morales took his turn sprinting to left field to catch a behind-the-back pop. The sound of a successful pop sent his teammates into a mini frenzy.
As they waited for August Wittenberg’s Three Rivers Little League (TRLL) team — a league Morales grew up in — to join the high schoolers for a joint practice, the Huskies continued to shag fly balls. The scene demonstrated the intentional partnership between the youth programs and the high schools they feed into as well as the targeted outcome: Skilled players enjoying America’s pastime.
“Kids are starting to look forward to representing their high school,” Stevens said of the 7 to 14 year-olds that make up TRLL.
“Three Rivers Little League has benefited many youth baseball players in our area,” he continued.
Support Local Journalism
“The opportunity to practice and play the game consistently gives players a solid base when they get to high school. The increased competitiveness of our area high schools is no doubt due to the hard work and dedication of local parents and coaches that are providing these opportunities for their athletes.”
Putting the “fun” in fundamentals
Ben Dodds, who has been involved with TRLL for eight years as a parent and coach and currently coaches his 11-year-old son’s team, the Eagle Cubs, said he’s noticed the increased cohesion between TRLL’s coaches and area high school programs. It’s raised the level of performance for both.
“It’s been fun for me as a coach just trying to figure out how we can continue to support the local high schools,” Dodds said.
“I just appreciate the partnership with what we’re doing at the youth level.”
With two sons on Battle Mountain’s junior varsity and varsity squads, Dodds has gone from being “more focused on how to put 8 and 9-year-olds on a team and manage them,” to ensuring they’re equipped for the next level, often speaking with Stevens about fundamentals and sport pedagogy.
“In the last three years, Harrison has taken a tremendous interest in what we’re doing at the lower level,” Dodds affirmed.
The two-way relationship is intentional.
“I do my best to make it to as many little league games and practices as possible,” stated Stevens. “I enjoy providing coaches with resources to help them best serve their athletes.”
The volunteer-driven league provides baseball and softball opportunities for boys and girls from Vail to Glenwood Springs to Aspen. Minors (7 to 10-years-old), Majors (11 and 12-year-olds), Intermediate 50/70 (12 and 13-year-olds) and Juniors (13 and 14-year-olds) as well as two softball divisions contest 16-24 games between early March and the end of May, culminating in a division playoffs. It’s a critical time for player growth.
“Baseball players develop tremendously from 9 to 14-years-old, so setting a foundation of fundamentals and baseball knowledge is key,” wrote Stevens in an email.
“This also helps young baseball players enjoy the game more as they grow older because they can see themselves becoming competent in a very difficult sport.”
As they improve, so too do their high schools.
“There are kids who now play at Eagle Valley High School and are playing really good baseball,” Dodds stated, pointing to P.J. Lombardo, Jacob Loupe and Patrick Reno in particular. Dodds remembered bouncing ideas off of former Devils coach Jesse Meryhew in his early days as well.
“Those are some players that were really involved in the jump coming up through Three Rivers.”
Dodds said that joint practices in Gypsum have allowed high school players to assist in building camaraderie and teaching more technical skills. “
“That has been a real win,” praised Dodds. He also mentioned that kids like Devils cross-country and basketball coaches Justin and Melinda Brandt’s son are excited to attend Eagle Valley games.
“He wants to go and watch and be engaged and learn the sport,” Dodds said of his friends’ son.
In June, an All-Star team selected by coaches, the board of directors and players themselves, forms with the league’s best players in each age group for post-season play. Grand Junction hosts a district tournament the third week of June, with state following in July. Winners there advance to Regions, where qualification spots for the Little League World Series are up for grabs.
In 2021, the TRLL All-Star Juniors baseball and softball clubs won both districts and state, but were unable to contest regions due to COVID-19. The Eagle Cubs were second at state in the Majors. In addition to growing from a then-record 400 participants last year to 470 this season, Eagle County teams have gradually started to find themselves more consistently at the top of the season-long standings, a spot which had in the past belonged mostly to Roaring Fork clubs.
“I think a win for Eagle County is we have been winning the divisional championships games over the last few years whether it’s juniors or majors,” said Dodds.
“We’re building competitive teams.”
Still, Dodds said the main focus is long-term development.
“I’m not so concerned about winning a local championship. I’m more excited about putting and placing players who have baseball I.Q. and skill at the local high schools so we can compete at the state championship level someday,” he said.
“We want to develop players who can be successful.”
At the same time, Dodds realizes that “fun” comes first in fundamentals.
“Coaches do recognize that not every kid is at the same level, but what we’re trying to instill is a love for America’s favorite pastime.”
Successfully incorporating lifelong lessons into each practice and game is Integral to his definition of success.
“There’s not a practice that we don’t have a conversation about life and challenges that we’re going to confront in life. We might experience those on the baseball field, but they do translate to life and becoming young men and young women as they grow up,” he said.
According to Dodds, the entire TRLL board “recognizes the role we play in young boys’ and young girls’ lives.”
“We don’t take that for granted and we are grateful for parents that support us and believe in what we’re doing in the lives of our kids. It’s just a real fun treat to be able to work with kids the way that we do.”
On the way home from a frustrating tie-game this year in Carbondale, Dodds’ own son provided one of those reminders as to why he works with kids in the first place.
“Dad, I don’t think I’ve ever really thanked you for the time you’ve put into working with me. I know that you really love this game, and because of your love, I love this game,” Dodds recalled his 11-year-old saying.
“I was like, ‘dude, oh well we tied!’ That was just a fun father-son time.”
Stevens echoed the sentiment, stating, “Facilitating this love for the game, providing opportunities for them to face adversity and overcome it, and ensuring that fun is the primary reason for playing is our job as adults, coaches, and parents.”
After setting up some drills, Stevens gathered his athletes, who bumped into each other as they jogged in from center field, either amped up over either Morales’ catch or giggling about something else. Five minutes later, they were headed to various spots on the field to get down to business and prepare to train the next generation.
The smiles never left.