The 14-and-under Cleveland All-Stars baseball team won the state championship on Monday, June 5, at the Ranger Youth Baseball Texas Series State Tournament in Longview, Texas, beating a team from Hallsville 11-4 in the final round.
“We went to the Liberty tournament a few weeks ago and came out undefeated. We had to qualify for District in order to advance to state. It was a single-round elimination bracket and we made it through. When this series started, there were 111 teams through District play all across Texas. We finished first and won the gold,” said Neil Stuckey, who coaches the team alongside Bo Hamilton and Gary Whitmire.
Last year’s season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so emotions were riding high before the game, said Stuckey. Players knew this was their final year to play together in youth league sports as 10 of the 12 players are moving on to Cleveland High School sports next season.
“Five members of the team started playing together 10 years ago. In T-Ball, when they were 4-5 years old, they won fourth place in the state tournament. Over the years, we have added more players to this group, kids who had the right attitude and were dedicated,” said Stuckey. “We have won district tournaments a few times but this is their first state championship.”
The original five team members are Chase Stuckey, Parker Hamilton, Ryland Hamilton, Giovani Gonzalez and T.T. Gonzalez with Dedrick Bradford, Demari Viands, Devari Viands, Cam Whitmire, Ivan Gonzalez, Ty Chapman and Billy Arrendondo making up the rest of the team.
Stuckey said the team’s baseball skills were only part of their of what led to their state championship win. A dedication and commitment to the team, not only from the players, but their parents, is what gave them a decisive edge.
“It was a 100 percent buy-in. They all feel like they are brothers. In their last huddle today, with three outs left to win, I saw Giovani look at his teammates and say, ‘I love you, guys.’ For all of them, that’s their attitude. There is never the word ‘me.’ It’s always about what is best for the team, and they just weren’t going to be denied winning this year,” Stuckey said.
Fans of the Cleveland team also made an impression on the opposing teams, Stuckey said.
“One thing we got complimented on was our fan base. The fan base that traveled to Longview for the game today was unmatched. We filled the stands. It was amazing to see the Cleveland people there to cheer them on for two solid hours today. In fact, the other team’s coaches said to me that our fans had the hairs on the backs of their necks standing up,” Stuckey said.
For Stuckey and his devoted wife and partner in sports, Linda, this was fitting way to end their two-decade leadership of Cleveland Youth Baseball Association. As this season comes to a close, they will be handing on the mantle to a new CYBA president. Neil said he and Linda are excited to be fans in the bleachers next season to watch their son, Chase, and the other members of the team play on the high school level.
Stuckey credits Linda with being the glue that held the team together.
“She has been our team mom for 10 years. Between handling all our paperwork and documentation, and taking photographs of the team, that woman has done it all. She always has an extra pair of socks or an extra cap when someone needed one. I don’t even know where she got them but she was always ready,” he said. “It gave us one less thing to worry about. She also was the best scout of the other teams, and we couldn’t have done this without her.”
With the championship season now at an end, Stuckey hope the team members never forget the lessons they learned en route to the victory.
“I just want them to keep pushing. The lessons they have learned go way beyond baseball. We make sure we pray before every game and give our thanks to God,” he said. “It’s about families having each others’ backs. I want the players to remember the conversations that we had that were just as important to us as this victory. This game was not as important to us as them growing into responsible young men.”