By Blake Spurney
Harvey County Now Staff
NEWTON – The Conrade Insurance Cardinals defeated the RE/MAX Royals 10-9 in what was the final of eight games between the teams composed of fifth- and sixth-graders.
The outcome was less significant than the fact that Newton offered baseball and softball for children in that age range for the first time in more than 20 years.
“It was fun,” said Claudia Villadar of the Royals. “Well, I just like meeting new people and hanging out with more girls. It’s exciting. You get to try new things and you get to meet new people.”
Coach Nick Navrat said the transition from fourth grade to going to Santa Fe 5-6 Center could be difficult for many students. The students suddenly are surrounded by those who went to other elementary schools. He said his daughter, Olivia, had a class with no other girls from her former elementary school except for one girl she got to know through softball. He said each girl was the other’s only friend in their class.
Navrat and Chuck Haines had been coaching the same group of girls since they were in first grade. The players stuck together through the COVID-19 pandemic, but they had no league in Newton in which they could play after they completed the fourth grade. So Navrat and some other parents went looking for a way to keep the girls engaged. They called different cities in the area during the fall of 2020 and learned that Hutchinson would be willing to accept a couple of Newton teams in its league starting in 2021.
Navrat said the opportunity for the girls to play wouldn’t have become a reality without the support of Emily Crawford, who took this summer off to spend time with her family. Crawford said she, Haines and Navrat worked with Tyler Boese, sports director at the Newton Recreation Commission, on getting a local league started. She said Boese got the rec commission board to go along with their plan. The end result was two Newton teams were created for both baseball and softball.
“It’s nice to see something, when I first started here that it seemed liked a myth that something like that could happen here,” Boese said. “Hopefully, it will continue to grow for us.”
Crawford said she couldn’t speak for what the opportunity had meant to the girls, but the coaches wanted to keep the players together based on their love of the game.
“It just meant so much to those girls to know that we were going to stay together as a family,” she said.
Lillith Jones, who plays for the Cardinals, expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to play.
“It’s just something I get to look forward to every year,” she said.
Boese said without the rec center teams, the players would have to resort to trying out for club teams. Only the top players get to play on club teams. He said the new rec league gave all the players the chance to explore whether they wanted to play baseball or softball when they got into high school. He said registration fees covered the cost of caps and hats, and the sponsors help with equipment costs and paying for umpires.
Boese said 2022 was more of an experiment to gauge interest. He said he and the coaches were looking at the rules to see what might need tweaking for next year. He also said he would be checking with other cities like Halstead and Hesston to see if they would be interested in fielding teams next year.
“I think the fact that we were able to provide this opportunity to these girls after 20 years is amazing,” said Beckie Villabar, whose daughter Claudia played for the Royals. “I am so appreciative of the Nick, Emily and the Newton Rec Center for allowing our girls to do what they love, and that is to play softball.”
Villabar said when the team traveled to Hutchinson last year, it made for some very late nights. She said Newton needed more opportunities for those between fifth and eighth grades. She is among those working toward continuing with a league next summer for those in seventh and eighth grades.
Olivia Navrat had a big hit to left field in the top of the second that brought in two runs for the Cardinals. She explained her mindset when she is at the plate.
“I just pretend that it’s just a practice ball and it’s not that special,” she said. “And I just hit it as hard as I can. I just imagine that when I hit it hard, I hit a home run. I’ve played softball since I was 5 or 6, so I’ve had a lot of training.”
Teams are allowed a maximum of five runs in an inning and the Cardinals reached the limit in both. The Royals scored four in the bottom of the first, but a force play at third retired the side.
Nick Navrat said parents already had expressed support for keeping the league going next year. He said he would like to get a couple of more teams organized. He’s also hopeful that some of the players will stick with the sport in high school.
“Some of them just have natural talent,” he said.