Wednesday, May 8, 2013 | 2 a.m.
There is more to high school sports than just winning.
It’s about learning to become a reliable teammate, developing lifelong friendships, staying productive and playing for the name on the front of the jersey — that school you grew up following and hoping to one day compete for in a varsity sport.
Winning sure makes the experience more memorable.
That’s something players on the Chaparral High baseball team can attest to after their Division I-A playoff game Monday. Chaparral High, a school I graduated from and whose athletes I never hesitate celebrating, beat Western 5-2 on a three-run home run from Zach Harman in the seventh, and final, inning.
The excitement and sense of accomplishment the players felt is possible because of division realignment. This year, inner-city schools such as Chaparral and Clark that struggled in past seasons to compete against powers such as Green Valley and Palo Verde were reclassified to form a new league with the schools on the outskirts of the valley — Boulder City, Overton’s Moapa Valley, Pahrump Valley and Mesquite’s Virgin Valley.
Officials should be commended for accomplishing their primary goal of giving the Chaparrals of the area a chance to further enjoy the high school experience.
That started before Monday’s game — a game in uncharted waters.
“They were feeling the jitters before the game because it was new for them,” Chaparral coach David Soto said. “We had to tell them: ‘The bases are still the same distance; nothing has changed. Believe in yourself and things will work out.’
“It was a great experience for them. You could see it in their face and the shine in their eyes.”
Here’s all you need to know about the Cowboys: Last year, while playing against the likes of Las Vegas High and Rancho in league play, they won just two games. Even if they would have nudged their way into the playoffs, they would have been outclassed by baseball-rich schools such as Coronado, Green Valley and Silverado.
Chaparral last won the state baseball championship in 1991, also advancing to the state football title game that school year with running back Mark Jackson and lineman/kicker Nick Garritano leading the way. Each time I see the championship banners hanging in the Chaparral gym, I wonder if the orange and black will ever hang another, knowing the prominent years of the early- to mid-1990s are a thing of the past.
But thanks to realignment, Soto feels his baseball program can be the next Chaparral team to hang a banner. This year, the team won more than 20 games; even though they lost Tuesday to Boulder City in the double-elimination playoffs, they still are in the postseason hunt.
Soto has done a phenomenal job of coaching, stressing the basic fundamentals of the sport and making sure the game is played the right way. Chaparral likely would have been a playoff team in last year’s format after splitting a pair of games with Division-I playoff qualifier Basic and losing just 3-0 to Bonanza, another D-I qualifier.
Chaparral has some of the division’s top players. Junior Tommy Crone led the league in wins (seven) and strikeouts (71), and freshman Mark O’Connor won six games and batted over .400.
Yes, thanks to realignment, this definitely isn’t the same Chaparral team.
The Chaparral players take the field with confidence knowing they can compete against the team in the other dugout. They genuinely feel they can win a championship.
It’s an even playing field with a division of programs in similar situations — Sunrise Mountain, Desert Pines and SECTA each rely primarily on seasonal or first-time players and have similar financial resources. They would never compete against Division-I schools where players have multiple bats, take private lessons after practice and enjoy other extras.
Of the 33 players in the Chaparral program, Soto said most hadn’t even played Little League. Yet, they are competing for a state title and having the time of their lives in the process.
“What attracted me to Chaparral was the challenge,” said Soto, who is in his second year. “It was a huge transition, from A to Z in every aspect. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve had in baseball and I’ve been doing this 40 years.
“We had to start from scratch. We had to teach them the game before they could play it. But they are some hard-working, good kids. They made it that much easier. They don’t take anything for granted.”
Boulder City and Faith Lutheran are the teams to beat, but at least Chaparral is in the conversation. At least they are playing meaningful games at the end of the season, understanding the most important lesson of high school sports: Hard work is rewarded. That’s something they can use the rest of their lives.