CONTRIBUTED BY ANDY PHILPOT –
Everyone in Polk County knows that there is a Mena Bearcats baseball team, which has represented Mena High School for over thirty years. What everyone may not realize is that Mena is now sporting a new Bearcats baseball team, which has caused a buzz throughout the community during their first season of play that wraps up its regular season this Friday. This new team, consisting of players age 13-15, has came out of the gate strong in their inaugural season.
After years of local discussion by parents and community members of there needing to be a local team that athletes in this age category could play for, the ideas and talk became a reality this year. Mena High School Assistant Principal Steve Breedlove turned discussion in to action and was able to make it happen with the help and support of parents and the community. Breedlove joined MHS as the assistant principal in 2013, and upon his arrival to Mena, it wasn’t long before locals learned of his extensive background in the sport of baseball.
Over the course of his years here, Breedlove saw this need to provide these young men an opportunity. Knowing how valuable it would be to give these players the chance to play together during their middle school years, helping them to develop their skills and also learn to play together as Mena Bearcats, he also saw the need for consistency. “We’re about to have our fourth different head coach of the Bearcat baseball team in five years here at the high school, and that hasn’t provided stability for the players,” Breedlove said. “We needed to create this team for 13-15 year olds and give them stability to develop their skills at this level, which will help feed into the high school organization when they get to that age.”
With this being a team of 13-15 year olds, it encompasses players who were in 7th, 8th, and 9th grade this past school year. Of the 19 players on the team, five of them were also freshmen on the high school baseball this past year.
This newly created baseball team is, in fact, the Mena Bearcats, and they are playing in the Babe Ruth League, which is a youth baseball league based out of Fort Smith through the Fort Smith Boys and Girls Clubs. The league consists of eight teams, and other than a couple of matchups with Acorn during their roughly six-week long season, the boys from Mena are playing teams who call the Fort Smith area their home. Their first games were on April 27, which happened to be a double header against Acorn, and their 24-game season will wrap up this Friday, June 9, with a double header at home against Cossatot.
This group of young Bearcats play their home games at the MHS baseball field, which is fitting, considering this is a group of eager young men who will likely help fill the roster of the MHS version of the Bearcats in the coming years.
Breedlove is the team’s head coach, but he’s doing more than bringing his rich history and knowledge of baseball to these young men. Breedlove is joined by locals Pete Rose, Anthony Efird, and Ryan Gilbert, who are assistant coaches and supporters on this new baseball journey. Rose is working with coaching the pitchers, Efird is working with the position players and outfield, and Gilbert has been instrumental in managing the financial side of the team and their needs.
“We’re working on developing their baseball skills so they can compete, but we’re making them young men first,” Breedlove said. “We want the players to have enthusiasm and confidence for playing baseball; when they walk on the field any given day, I want them to feel they can win.”
Led by Breedlove, these young men have not only gained a competitive nature together as a team, they are showcasing their abilities, as well as their unity as a team.The Bearcats currently have a record of 16-2, with four games remaining on their schedule. The Bearcats have not lost a game since May 9, and with a double header this week against the Cossatot Eagles, the Bearcats have a chance to finish their inaugural season with a record as a good as 18-2 if they are able to win out this week. Due to the challenge of finding alternate dates to play games, the rain-outs won’t be made up before the season comes to a close on June 9. Despite a few missed games due to weather, the experience this group of young men has gained has been something that would not have been able to accomplished had they played separately on various travel teams around the state.
A team such as this doesn’t come to be on its own. After years of local discussion of there being a need for an organized baseball team for boys this age, talk not only became an idea, but it came to life. With a widely popular and successful youth softball and baseball program locally at Tapley Park, it’s no secret that boys and girls who wish to continue playing ball past 12 year olds have been looking towards out-of-town teams during their middle school years.With the youth league at Tapley Park not providing a boys baseball team for ages 12-15, this left the local young men, and their parents, with one of two choices for many years: put their baseball careers on hold for a few years until they reached the 9th grade and could play for the high school team…or join a travel team out-of-town.
While there are a number of travel teams to seek out in various parts of the state, that comes with a commitment of both time and finances from families. In an already busy world, it’s not possible for all families to commit the time to driving their sons out of town several days a week, let alone meet the financial demands of being part of a travel team that may be based out of Fort Smith, Texarkana, Little Rock, or another part of the state. While the opportunity may be fun and valuable for these young men, it’s not a realistic opportunity for everyone.
According to Breedlove, of the 19 young men on this Bearcat baseball team, only four of them would have otherwise played on a travel team somewhere else in the state. The flip side of that is that 15 young men are getting a baseball experience now that they otherwise would have missed out on.
The other mentioned option has been the case for a lot of young men over the years, in that they don’t play organized baseball during their middle school years, leading up to them picking baseball up again as a freshman or sophomore in high school, as their love and desire for the game still exists.For young men playing baseball, the ages of 13-15 are an invaluable time to not only work on their skills of the game, but to also work on developing their baseball mind. A baseball mind is more than just enjoying the game or watching a game, but it helps with instinct, and that can make the difference on having the edge over another player, or a team of young players.According to Breedlove, there are many areas of the game that are involved with having a baseball mind. Making a double play, when to cut off to home, how to react to different kinds of pitches, when the right time to steal a base, and many other parts of the game are part of developing a player’s baseball mind.
As a young man is growing and maturing, Breedlove knows there is a major difference between a player who is 15 years old and a player that is 18 years old. There is also a difference between players who are 13 and 15. Years in baseball make a difference….as does experience, strength, size, and the ability for a player to have confidence playing the game they love.”There’s a big different between 15 year olds and 18 year olds,” Breedlove said. “15 year olds trying to compete against 18 year olds, which that’s what you have as a freshman playing against seniors at the high school level, is difficult for anyone. Even sophomores competing against seniors, whether that’s in high school or even college, is a challenge. Here at this level that we’re playing, 15 year olds playing against other 15 year olds, we are succeeding. This helps builds confidence. We have the chance at this level to learn what our players can and can’t do.”
Breedlove added that baseball is a sport that requires a specific area of skills to be successful.
“The problem with players starting playing again in high school is that you already need to have skills when you get there,” Breedlove said. “With baseball being a spring sport, it’s a short competitive season, and there’s not enough time, once you’re at the high school level, to spend time developing those skills. If you don’t bring those skills into the season with you, you get behind.”
Breedlove also shared that players can’t expect to pick a ball up in January and be ready to play in March, then drop the ball again once the season is over, not working on their game the rest of the year. This is a sport of reps and continual training.
This team has experienced success both on and off the field. Their record shows their ability to compete, but there are also experiences going on behind the scenes that are helping these young players in life. “We’re hoping to make them into young men first,” Breedlove said. “This all starts with acting right. Whatever we do, we take it like a man. If you strikeout, you don’t throw your helmet and act out…you go sit in the dugout and you think about it, and you take it like a man.”
This philosophy goes for whether they are experiencing success or defeat. Even though they have only lost two games, the losses help the players learn, too.
“There have been some games that we have won that haven’t been very close,” Breedlove said. “In a game that we lost 3-2 did more for them than a 14-1 win for the team. It helps them understand what they can do better the next time they are on the field.”
In their daily practices, which ran for two hours each during the season, they would spend 30 minutes of each practice on basic skills. Breedlove and his coaching staff would get the most out of each practice, managing the time to benefit of the team and the players that are now Bearcats. “When we’re conditioning, I always tell the guys to reach down and give a little more,” Breedlove added. “This team cheers for each other, and they encourage success for each other. At the end of each practice and between each inning, I’ll say ‘Call it up!’, and that pulls the team together. They take turns talking to one another, and they’ve taken ownership of the huddle, and they’ll have a different player each time choose the team word. We are one team, win or lose.”
All of the experience, as well as the success, is something these young men won’t forget during their inaugural season. This is just the beginning though.
“In two or three years, this will be the high school team,” Breedlove stated. “If the kids keep working and progressing, they will be very competitive when they get to the high school level. They’ll be able to compete with anybody.”
Breedlove is very grateful for the outpouring of support that has been shown for this team this year, from the idea phase up through this final week of play.
“Because of the community’s need and desire for this type of opportunity, there has been tremendous support from parents, as well as the businesses that have donated to help make this possible. This is very supportive community, and I can’t say enough good things about the parents. This is a community that comes together. Also, a big thank you to Mena Superintendent Mr. Weston or allowing us to use the baseball facilities here at the high school. It’s been a great opportunity for us to showcase the facilities we have.”
Once the season wraps up this Friday evening, there will be All-Star Team selections that will take place upon the conclusion of the Babe Ruth League seasons. There will be two teams selected from this Fort Smith based league, which will be a 13-14 year old team, and a 14-15 year old team. Breedlove said that up to eight of Mena’s players could make the teams. If Mena has players named to the team(s), they will practice as an All-Star team before going on to play in the State Babe Ruth League Tournament, which will be held in Harrison. The winner of the State Babe Ruth League Tournament would then go on to play in the regional tournament, then potentially on to the Babe Ruth League World Series this summer.
Beyond this season, Breedlove said the future of the team’s path will be on hold until the new head coach of the MHS Bearcat baseball team arrives at the high school to be involved with the overall structure.
Breedlove has enjoyed this group of young men playing together as Mena, which he feels has been as important as anything.