CHERRY — Coming in as the No. 1 seed in this year’s Iron Range Babe Ruth baseball tournament, Rock Ridge 2 had grown used to outscoring their opponents by obscene margins all season long.
And while their first two tournament wins were still impressive (13-3 against Cherry and 9-2 over Hibbing 2), the Wolverines had to buckle down and play their best baseball in the championship game against Hibbing 1.
Falling down early, Rock Ridge needed to respond and play some small ball if they wanted to push enough runs across home plate to get the win. Tying it up 2-2 going into the fifth inning, Rock Ridge got the important go-ahead run on a suicide squeeze. They eventually tacked on one more and came away with the 4-2 win.
The win gave Rock Ridge 2 the Iron Range Babe Ruth title and completed a perfect 13-0 season. Head coach Brian Bailey said it was the perfect way for his team to end the year after the successful spring and summer seasons they put together.
“Coaching them in the spring and again in the summer, we only lost one game all year to a team that was the same age as our kids,” Bailey said. “We knew we were pretty talented coming into this season and we just had to put it all together. Our goal coming in was to go undefeated and win the league championship.”
Bailey said it was a mix of attributes that caused his squad to be so dominant, namely their pitching depth, strength at the plate and willingness to go the extra mile on defense. Looking at the scoreboard after each game, the championship against Hibbing 1 was the only time a team was within seven runs of Rock Ridge 2 this season.
Pitching wise, Bailey said Blake Bailey and Aiden Bird put in plenty of work for the team on the mound.
Finishing up his fourth year working with this specific group of players, Bailey says their growth has been nothing short of remarkable.
“We just played well all year long. We’ve always been a smaller team when they were 10, 11 or 12. Now we’re finally growing up. The kids are getting a lot bigger and a lot stronger. Fundamentally, we play as well as any older team in the area. We play a really aggressive style of defense that works for us and I knew coming in that if this group stayed together they would have a very bright future.
“We allow one run a game pitching wise. At this level, that’s amazing because we throw strikes and play defense behind them. Offensively we score 10 runs a game. We’re fundamentally sound and don’t kick the ball around.”
The team includes numerous standout athletes already with Bailey saying their strengths shine outside of the diamond.
“If you look at the athletes on this team, we have a Section 7 cross country champion, kids playing varsity basketball already and their eighth grade football team went undefeated this past year. They put in so much work with everything they do on the field and even in the classroom and it pays off for them.”
Bailey says the work in the classroom is most important, with the members on the travel team boasting a 4.0 grade point average.
“It all starts in the classroom. It all starts at home with discipline and putting in the extra effort into succeeding. These kids are very goal oriented and we set goals for them every summer and every spring. Of the goals we set, so far we’ve obtained them all.”
While they had grown used to dominating their opponents all year long, Bailey said it was even more impressive that his team didn’t take themselves out of the game when they initially struggled in the championship game.
“The kids know that we have the last at bat. As long as we have an out remaining, we’re in any ball game. We knew it was a matter of time. Their pitcher was getting tired. He was icing his arm between innings and he had thrown the day before. We had chances earlier in the game but kids were caught stealing and stuff like that. Eventually, we knew if we took professional at bats and worked the count, we’d get back in the game.”
Their first summer together as Rock Ridge, Bailey says the consolidation has worked wonders for the team and only made them better.
“The kids have handled it very well. As parents, we’ve been trying the last two years to include everybody together. Once they started playing football together, we wanted everyone from both schools together for birthday parties and get togethers. From a young age, we wanted to get the kids to coexist and they’ve exceeded all expectations and become best friends.
“Right now, there’s seven of them playing tennis together in Fayal. There’s always groups of them hanging out together no matter where you look. The biggest thing for a team to have is that camaraderie and just liking each other. They want to succeed and they have each other’s backs. We’ve taken that same mindset with this group of kids and it’s just worked.”
With most from this team moving on as freshmen beginning this next school year, Bailey’s time with them as Babe Ruth players is finished. Still, he expects them to do great things in the years ahead.
“I love watching these kids play together from the little league level all the way up to varsity. IT all starts in little league and I was helping out down there too. I love seeing it all come together from the ground up and you can tell these kids are going to have something special over the next few years.”