The taste of success got an early start for about a dozen or so 10 to 12 year olds.
Siren-blaring escorts into town by emergency personnel are the stuff of high school state champions returning home from competition. For the Oklahoma Rays, it was a third-place finish in the Little League Softball Southwest Regional — two steps from going from being the first Oklahoma team in a regional to the first in the softball pinnacle of Little League’s drive to excellence.
The Muskogee-based Rays were doubled-up by Helotes, Texas, a team representing Texas West, 6-2 late Saturday — a game had they won, they’d played Louisiana with a spot in the Little League World Series at stake.
I’ve been lit up with questions from some as to if all these girls are future Roughers. The answer to that is, at this point, no.
While representing Muskogee, the team has just four — Juliana Hutchens, Jaye Barnoski, Shay Grissom and Jaliyah Simmons — who go to Muskogee schools. Mileigh Needham, BrenLee Morgan, Kensley Allen and Aubree Davis attend school in Oktaha. Lilly Beverage attends Hilldale and Aubri Kizzia attends Fort Gibson. Kiwi Birdtail is from Briggs, part of Tahlequah Schools.
All had a hand in the team’s success — one great thing about Little League rules is its play-every-game requirement for kids on rosters.
That would give indication to an age cluster that renders a bright outlook for high school softball in the years to come, but such an outlook isn’t surprising. Hilldale, Fort Gibson and Oktaha have been steady in success, Muskogee has slipped in recent years, but like the others has a tradition of success in the sport in both fast pitch and slow pitch.
But with four of these girls coming from Muskogee — including Hutchens, who up to this year played baseball — there’s a nucleus there that gives hope to a return to prominence if not before that.
One other thing — a salute to Johnny Hutchens, the team’s manager.
Currently Muskogee’s baseball coach, Hutchens is doing something that I have long said is something that would help Muskogee’s fortunes in not only softball but baseball. His Rays “organization” includes multiple teams over multiple age groups in both sports. His 16-under Senior League Rays took fourth place in the Southwest Regional two weeks ago in Seguin, Texas. It had four Muskogee players — Caleb Webb, Pryce Jackson, Antonio Zapata and Gio Zapata
Last year was a down year for multiple local baseball programs. Muskogee’s has been down for almost a decade — it’s one state appearance in that time coming off a stunning regional run with a team that wound up losing 20 games.
Baseball and softball numbers in the Hatbox leagues, in its heyday known as the Knothole League, have been declining for years. With it, the quality of ball as a whole, not just in Muskogee.
In baseball at one point in the early part of this decade descending into the 00s, there were at least a half-dozen baseball players from the area at some level of professional baseball. There were four or five division I softball players.
Numbers and player development are important at the young ages.
An investment in the youth leagues is needed.
Hutchens, with a Muskogee High connection, gives the school a connection that hopefully for Muskogee, keeps Muskogee kids in Muskogee and doesn’t make them transfers.
The Rays teams may be more “travel” teams than the traditional sign-up and play variety. To increase the participation numbers, you need both.
That’s what Ron and Don Mayes, like Hutchens coaches in Muskogee’s system, went for to generate a greater love for track and field. For the second year, their summer track program, No Speed Limit, took a collection of area kids all the way to nationals, having qualified at previous meets. Ashlen Freeman, Zoe Walker, Oshea Stevenson, Zion Dedmon, McKaylan Corbin and Walker Newton all qualified and although they did not make the podium nationally, getting there through state and regionals says a lot.
All of those go to school in Muskogee except Walker, who is from Tulsa.
No escort into town, but they got a flight to California out of it — and that in itself for every kid was a first. The team also had to come up with $10,760 for plan tickets, five nights hotel and six days of fan rental, some of that through fundraisers and a bunch of it, once word got out to people like you, through direct donations.
It’s one thing to build at the high school level.
But what people like Hutchens and the Mayes are doing sew the seeds of success wherever the kids pursue their education.
And as always, your support, or lack of support, plays a part in the success of all our kids.