Jeremy Lingenfelter coached his 2019 Burlington-based travel baseball team pretty close to the way he thought the season would turn out.
The Strykers – a Southeast Kansas USSSA travel club that includes three Chanute American Legion baseball players (Caden Schwegman, Gage Guiot and Kaiden Barnett) – finished the summer season with an 11-9-2 record, placing second on July 19 in the USSSA Midwest Summer Championship at the 3&2 Complex in Kansas City, the last tournament of the year for the 15 and younger group.
Traveling to Kansas City and Topeka, other finishes included 12th place (1-2) in the Main Event Cowtown on June 7, second place (2-0) in the KS High School State Championship on June 20, third place (2-3) in the Uncle Sam Slam (All Field Turf) on July 5, and third place (1-3) in the four-game Turf Grand Slam Wood Bat on July 20.
Exceptional tournament finishes and overall record means capable players who produce results. Players from Melvern, Yates Center, Burlington, Chanute and Humboldt did their due diligence all year, and Lingenfelter knew he had this kind of talent, especially since these players have been on the same team the last five years – most since 10 years of age. The Melvern native was there every step of the way to see.
In knowing the talent, with players who typically play all-year round whether it’s with a high school team, an American Legion team, another summer league squad, a recreation team or a fall ball group, Lingenfelter’s intuition told him the team had a chance to be solid all year. Assistant coaches Michael Fager, Mark Lacey and Tim Jones had that inclination as well.
Teams need practice to gel. But the team wasn’t able to practice even once this year because of the weather and conflicting schedules. Talent took over, thanks to players’ schedules revolving around America’s pastime.
Lingenfelter, 43, said his team took full advantage of that.
“I don’t know if there is such thing as focus in a 15-year-old,” Lingenfelter joked. “They would just show up, and we would warm up, really that’s about what we did. They all played high school baseball, so they weren’t really rusty when we started playing. And last year when we played, we started practicing around in February with pitchers and catchers. We got started that way. This year, they were already ready, right out of the gate.”
Being ready to go in any situation is what Lingenfelter envisioned, and the coach said it didn’t take any coaxing to get the players where they needed to be, or to manage these players as a unit.
“With these guys, it’s not very hard,” he said. “They are there by their choice – not because they have to be, because they want to be. They are all excited to see each other. They’re just good kids.”
Many of the players had to juggle game schedules if they were playing on more than one team or going to summer camps for other sports like football or basketball, but most of them found a way to make it work and participate in the majority of the Strykers games.
But nobody is prepared for an untimely death.
Eli Crutchfield’s father, Vance Crutchfield, died suddenly on July 3, just before the Uncle Sam Slam (All Field Turf) tournament, which started on July 5. This was a devastating loss to not just Eli (a Strykers’ player), but to all of his teammates as well.
Crutchfield made a valiant effort to coach on the bases when the regular coaches couldn’t be there. He would warm up the pitchers, and was just an all-around positive spectator and coach to the players. Lingenfelter said that when players struck out, he would be the first to say, “It’s okay, you get another chance,” or if a pitcher walked a guy, he would say, “It’s okay, they’ll bat again.”
Crutchfield had a penchant for helping the team in any way he could.
“In the past, he brought a grill and would grill out between games, so he was just a big part of this, too,” Lingenfelter said. “It was really tough to swallow. It was really just an unexpected, unfortunate event.”
Lingenfelter said he suggested that the team should back out of the tournament. The players, however, including Eli, felt it was best to continue to play even in such dire circumstances, as that’s what Vance would have wanted.
“It’s more than just winning a tournament, it’s kind of just them being together,” Lingenfelter continued.
Players rallied around the team’s and their teammate’s loss. The Strykers went on to place third in the field turf tournament, and they placed in the top three in the rest of their tournaments. Guiot culminated the season on a high note with the team’s only home run of the season in the 3&2’s Midwest Summer Championship.