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Rockets show resilience in shortened season

Kirt Manion
Syracuse Journal-Democrat

After grabbing second and third place finishes at the state tournaments in 2019, members of the Rocket American Legion Junior and Senior baseball team entered 2020 thinking about one descriptive word to add to the program’s resume—CHAMP.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit in March in the United States, closing schools, ending high school sports careers, and then cancelling summer baseball, first the national tournament and subsequently the state and area tournaments.

Nebraska’s American Legion baseball program decided to conduct a regular season, however. And that opportunity gave the Rockets a chance to add a descriptive word to the resume, one which few doubt will impact the rest of their lives—RESILIENT.

Syracuse Coach Mark Bayliss said the Rocket players and coaches were disappointed at not getting a chance to do more.

Just one player moved up from last year’s state runner-up Junior team and the Senior players had a roster featuring state tournament experience as well.

It was set up for success.

“It was a little bit disappointing, but we also put it in perspective,” said Coach Bayliss. “There are a lot of things going on in the world that are more important than being able to play in that championship.

“The kids understood it. We always tell them to control what you can and that is not something we can control,” Bayliss said.

There were a lot of reasons to play half-heartedly this summer. A late season start. Uncertainty about whether a season would even be allowed to finish. And there were no games of consequence for the post season.

Syracuse selected a different path.

“We were just happy we were able to get out and the guys were able to do something—especially the seniors,” said Bayliss. “It’s nice to see that they came out and were prepared and made the most of this opportunity.”

Bayliss said he was thankful to the state organization of the Legion for not folding up the 2020 season. There were states that choose that route. Bayliss called out the names of Brent Hagel-Pitt and Jody Moeller with the Nebraska Legion for hard work that resulted in the opportunity for a season for Syracuse players and all other players in the state. “Without their leadership, this would not have happened,” Bayliss said.

Turning attention to the ball diamond, both Syracuse Legion teams wrapped up the campaign. The Rocket Juniors put the bow on a 17-1 season with a 16-0 victory over Otoe County rival Nebraska City.

And the Syracuse Seniors ended their campaign on Sunday with a win over Tecumseh in a home tournament which also featured a recent state champion program in Shelby Osceola Stromsburg (SOS) and Elmwood-Murdock/Nehawka (E-M/N).

The Rocket Seniors entered weekend play after a tough-luck loss to Nebraska City, 3-2.

Syracuse beat Tecumseh 6-3 on Friday night and then suffered a tough set back to E-M/N, 15-2, on Saturday.

Coach Bayliss said his players left the ball park on Saturday knowing that their performance was not in line with the way this team has played this year. In fact, it might have been the worst game of the summer.

Instead of letting that result get to them, however, the Rocket players showed resilience in battling SOS and ending the season with a dominant 8-2 win over Tecumseh.

SOS matched up with Syracuse at the Seniors area tournament last year and defeated the Rockets to advance to state at Syracuse.

As tourney hosts, the Rockets got an automatic bid and ended up in third place while SOS went out of the event in two games.

Last year’s state bid for SOS followed a state tournament win for the program’s Junior team in 2018.

Although this year’s match up of the two teams ended in a 5-1 victory for the visitors, the Rocket team left the field knowing it had made a good account of itself.

“We had a lot of guys on base and just couldn’t get a hit when we needed to,” Bayliss said. “That makes a difference.”

With one more game to play, the Rockets again took advantage of the chance they had and expanded a 2-1 lead into an 8-1 difference that had the team on the brink of winning by the mercy rule.

The last couple of innings got to be played as Tecumseh scored a run to put the mercy rule farther out of reach. It might have been appreciated more than the players even realized.

Fifteen more outs to enjoy the on-field experience at the home park and for the team’s fans to enjoy extra moments as well.

It has been an impactful senior class for the Rockets.

Following the win, which pushed the Rocket record to 15-6, several players saw their American Legion eligibility expire. Andrew Thompson, Max Brammier, Brandon Cavanaugh, Grant Carlson, Jake Gorton and Jackson Zastera took off their Rocket jerseys for the last time.

Two other players who graduated from school this year, Grant Stubbendick and Garrett Daharsh, are young enough that they could play one more year for the Syracuse program

As a crew, the Rocket seniors will be remembered for big moments and big wins.

The team topped Louisville 21-19 in an epic area tournament championship that sent the Rockets to state. Last year, the team rallied for a great postseason and a third place finish on the home field for state.

“They’ve been like a lot of our groups here. They’ve been successful and had a good run,” Bayliss said. “They’ve been good contributors—good players. They’ve all done what we asked them to do and done it the right way.

“We are proud of them and we look forward to seeing them have success in their lives,” Bayliss said.