Coach Will Raftery gathered his Hickman-Norris baseball team in the lobby of a Comfort Inn on Wednesday morning for the strangest meeting he had ever held.
Before he began, he looked around at his players, teenage boys from the rural areas south of Lincoln.
He knew this was the day they had worked toward all summer.
He knew they had fielded a thousand grounders and taken countless rounds of batting practice.
He knew they had talked nonstop about what they would do when they won the Class B American Legion state title, talked with the certainty of youth about exactly how they would dogpile in front of the pitcher's mound to celebrate.
Coach Raftery cleared his throat. The room grew silent.
I have good news and bad news, he said.
First, the bad news: We won't be playing a baseball game today.
Then the good: We're state champions.
The Comfort Inn lobby exploded into an unintelligible chorus of mixed emotions:
Murmurs and grumbles. Cheers and confusion.
Then a voice cut through the noise. A teenage voice with a question.
We're still going to the field, right?
Thus began a state title game that wasn't and a Wednesday that Raftery and his players won't soon forget.
As you may have heard, Waverly, the Hickman-Norris team's erstwhile opponent in the title game, forfeited early Wednesday after six players ran afoul of the Scottsbluff Police Department in the middle of the night.
Allegedly they had been drinking. Allegedly at least one had taken a baseball bat and slugged a mailbox as if it were a fastball.
The allegations of misbehavior meant automatic suspensions. The six suspensions meant Waverly had only eight players left. Eight players isn't enough to field a team, and soon after Waverly forfeited, the team didn't have a head coach, either. Michael Goodrich, the founder of Waverly's high school baseball program, resigned later in the day.
So Norris was being crowned state champion, given the same trophy it would have won had the team managed to beat Waverly just once. (Waverly, coming from the loser's bracket, would have had to beat Hickman-Norris twice to win the double-elimination tournament.)
But it didn't feel the same — not when you are crowned a champion while standing in your street clothes inside the Gering Comfort Inn.
“We were just all kinda bummed out,” said Trey Hair, the team's leadoff hitter and starting shortstop.
“A tough moment, honestly,” Raftery said Thursday. “And to be honest with you, I think I was more emotional about not playing even than the team was. You talk about it all year, you set the goal, and then you are right there and all of a sudden the phone rings …”
It was the reality of life calling collect, threatening to trample a teenage dream.
Which is why a man named Ted Hair — that would be Trey Hair's father, and an assistant coach — is the hidden hero of Wednesday's state title game that wasn't.
As parents and players milled about the Comfort Inn lobby, Ted had an idea.
The players had their uniforms and gloves. Gering's baseball field, site of the title game, was suddenly available.
So one inning. Dads vs. sons.
“Why don't we go play a game?” he said.
When an unaware Raftery reached the field — he'd been settling the bill with the Comfort Inn manager — he found a group of middle-aged men taking infield practice. Or at least trying to.
“It was horrible,” Raftery says. “Unwatchable.”
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The players batted first, and mercifully scratched across only one run. That was in large part because their dads — in their infinite dad wisdom — had chosen a player's older brother, a one-time college pitcher, as their starter.
Or maybe it was two runs. The goofy grins on both players' and parents' faces said it didn't much matter.
In the bottom of the inning, Raftery came to bat first for the parents.
Byron Hood, one of Hickman-Norris' star pitchers, promptly sailed an 88 mph fastball behind his coach's head.
“I knew they were going to throw at me,” Raftery said laughing a day later.
Then Hood threw a nice fat pitch down the middle and — ping! — Raftery drove it into the left-center gap for a double.
“He must have closed his eyes and swung, I guess,” Trey Hair says.
The sons gave the dads six outs, and the dads still couldn't drive Raftery home. But no one cared.
The parents have carted their sons “all over the planet for baseball” since they were third-graders, Raftery said. The sons, at least the six who just graduated from high school, will be going to college later this month, four of them on baseball scholarships.
When they finished, the players rushed to the pitcher's mound and jumped on one another. It was a tangled mess of teenage limbs. It was a jumbled mass of teenage joy.
It was a dogpile, just like they planned. Their parents cheered wildly, just like they had planned.
Then they accepted their trophy and slammed their car doors and made the six-hour trip east across Nebraska, back to rural Lancaster County.
Six hours is a long time to think about winning and losing, and forfeits and father-son games, and what matters, and what doesn't.
“Yesterday I was a little bit upset with Waverly and their actions,” Raftery said. “Today as I reflect, and I've talked to people about it … I feel sorry for the Waverly kids who didn't do anything wrong. They battled their way back to the championship game and then they didn't get to play either.”
Says Hair, the shortstop: “Yeah, it stunk that we didn't get to play. But we're still state champions. We know we earned it. And that dogpile …”
His confident teenage voice goes a little bit solemn.
“That dogpile was perfect.”