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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Struck Strikes Out: Cheers and tears for the Braves

Friday, August 1, 2008

Nearly everywhere I've gone the past few years, invariably, someone stops to ask me about the Cherokee Braves baseball team.

Usually, the queries are something like, "How come Cherokee is always so good in baseball? It seems like they're always winning. Is it something in your water?"

The culmination of this phenomenon occured earlier this month when I was on a family vacation in Montana and Wyoming. After spending a few days touring Yellowstone National Park, we headed East and decided to spend an overnight in Cowboy Country's, Cody, Wyo.

We cruised the town until we randomly found a moderately-priced motel with an outdoor pool (our two major requirements for vacation lodging). We checked into our room and I headed to a convenience store for fuel and refreshments. When I returned, I parked near an elderly guy sitting in a lawn chair and sipping a cold brew outside his room.

"You from Cherokee?" he asked as he looked at my Iowa license plate that read "Cherokee" on the bottom. Resisting a facetious answer because I was raised to respect my elders, I told him I was. I glanced at his car and it was from Fremont County in Iowa.

"How come you guys are always so good in baseball?" he asked. "You're always ranked and we watched you win the State Tournament last year on TV. You've got a nice team. Our grandaughter thought your players were really cute. We're out here to see some rodeos. They have one every night here for 10 nights over the July 4th holiday."

With little to do for the next few days but drive, gawk at the mountain scenery, and think, I thought about the Braves 1,000 miles away and pondered why they have had so much success in baseball the past several years, including making the State Tournament four years in a row and five of the last six.

My pet answer through the years to people who ask about the Braves' baseball success has been "Great kids, great coaches, great genetics."

Then I thought about Cherokee assistant coach Steve Sonka and the thousands of hours he has devoted to area kids through coaching the Northwest Iowa Roughriders back in the 17-year run of the age-10-and-under CABA World Series days in Aurelia and Cherokee, and the countless youth baseball camps he directed each and every fall and winter in Cherokee.

All for free.

"Ya wanna learn baseball? Come on in."

This year's Braves, the Class 2A State runners-up after winning the State Championship last year, and placing third the year before that, boasts more than a half-dozen players who've participated in Sonka's youth camps, games, and practices. The past two years alone they've formed the nucleus of a varsity team that has won 61 of 65 games!

And, let's not forget Howie Hesse from Cherokee, and Jay Grimes from Galva, who assisted Sonka for several years, along with the Braves head coach Scott Koch.

Because I know a little bit about the game, Steve Sonka, along with some really cool parents, are responsible for igniting in their formative years the special passion many Cherokee Braves baseball players have. It's this passion that leads to a genuine love of the game, and which leads the Braves to victory after victory when lesser teams fail.

Of course, this all manifests when the players get in high school and are then further schooled and polished by veteran Cherokee coach Scott Koch, one of the most respected, high-integrity prep coaches in Iowa.

With the proof in the pudding, it is unquestioned that the Koch/Sonka baseball coaching tandem is unparalleled.

The photo accompanying this column shows Sonka giving a peck on the cheek to an amused and embarrassed Kyle Ruehle who had just produced a huge hit that put the Braves into a lead they would not relinquish in the State semifinals last week in Des Moines, casting the Braves into their second consecutive State Championship game.

Ruehle, who graduated this spring, attended Sonka's camps in his childhood and played CABA baseball for Sonka, who also has mentored Kyle throughout his outstanding high school pitching career.

The "kiss" was not meant to embarrass Kyle or make light of the situation in a tough game, but was Sonka's immediate and totally sincere reaction to a fundamentally pure and successful batting effort by Ruehle that turned the game in Cherokee's favor and boldly epitomized Sonka's and Koch's expert teachings.

I can't envision a greater "full-circle" baseball moment than what this photo, snapped by Kyle's mother, Dawn, reveals.

For the past 10 years, Sonka has helped mold Kyle into the All-Stater he is, and, with just one more game left to play, and both realizing that the curtain was rapidly closing on Ruehle's fabulous prep career, Kyle's beloved mentor kissed him on the cheek in a priceless, poignant, "That's baseball! That's the way you do it!" moment.

And as I stare at the photo savoring all that it represents, I humbly ask, "Who says there's no crying in baseball?"

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