SCHUYLER — They’re the two-time defending champions in one of the top summer leagues in Nebraska.
The team features a number of players with college experience or that level of talent.
Yet, the majority of the town where they play has never heard of them.
Meet the Leigh/Schuyler Crawdads of the Dodge County Baseball League.
On Thursday night at Schuyler’s Merchant Park, the Crawdads took the field to face the Scribner Hogs. The crowd neared 40 people, on the large side for a home game.
From an outside perspective, it looks like nothing more than an adult summer league. A closer look reveals the exact opposite. Nearly every player in the league played, or was talented enough to play, college baseball.
“A lot of them that didn’t probably should’ve been playing somewhere,” Crawdads head coach Keith Manak said.
Most of them were NAIA to Division II prospects. There’s even a few Division I talents in the league.
Spencer Morris, who went to Twin River High School, signed with Division II Wayne State College out of high school and now plays for the Crawdads.
The rest of the Crawdad roster isn’t short on talent either.
Blake Bubak and Tyler Morton were Telegram Super Seniors in 2015 and two of their teammates, Tucker Ramaekers and Spencer Humphrey, also play for the team. That summer, those four led the Columbus Cornerstone Insurance Group Senior Legion team to the state tournament.
Bubak still holds the Columbus High record for triples in a season (7) and career (11). Bubak and Morton share the school record for steals in a career (15) and Morton has the school record for career ERA (1.14).
Morton and Ramaekers have played shortstop and second base, respectively, together for more than a decade.
“Since we were like 9, playing Mariners, we were up the middle all the time,” Ramaekers said. “We have that connected bond with each other that we know where we’re going to be each play.”
That bond showed against the Hogs in the top of the second inning. With runners on first and second and one out, Ramaekers made a sliding stop on a ground ball up the middle, spun around and flipped to Morton, who fired to first for the double play to get out of the inning.
“It feels pretty good to keep playing with him,” Ramaekers said.
In total, 12 of the 15 players on the roster are from Columbus.
Justin Van Dyke, who threw all 10 innings against Scribner, Colin Ortmeier, Josh Spenner, Tanner Podraza, Alek Murphy, Nathan Silva, Austin Ewers and Nate Ek, also a former Telegram Super Senior, are the other players on the team who played for either Columbus High or one of the Columbus Legion teams.
Michael Swanson and Devin Miller are also on the Leigh/Schuyler roster.
Spenner, who played college baseball in Iowa after graduating from Scotus Central Catholic, found another calling in track and field, breaking the heptathlon and pole vault records at Wayne State.
So how does Manak, also the league's vice president, track down the players when most people haven’t heard of the league?
“I go out and recruit,” he said. “You have to.”
He would like to stick to the team's hometown, but there aren’t many baseball players in Schuyler, so he travels all over the area looking for talent.
He’s had players from Clarkson, Leigh and David City, in addition to Columbus and Genoa.
Though, according to Morton, sometimes the recruiting process isn’t terribly difficult.
“He called some of us up last summer and asked if we wanted to play and we were all for it,” Morton said.
Ramaekers knew of the league through his brothers, who played in it for a few years.
“I thought I’d give it a try,” he said.
The draw for the players is simple: a love of the game.
“Being on the ball field again, a lot of us, that summer as Seniors was the last time we got to play together,” Morton said. “So it’s fun to do something in the summer and be with our old high school buddies. During the school year we’re all at different schools and don’t get to see each other much, so it’s fun to rekindle the relationships that we had in high school and rekindle those good memories.”
Not everyone is a recent high school or college graduate, according to Morton. As long as someone wants to play baseball, there’s a spot in the league for them.
“We faced a team that had a 67-year-old guy that went 3 for 4 against us,” Morton said.
Even the coaches will swing the bat every now and again. Crawdads assistant Tim Juranek was the designated hitter Thursday against Scribner and had a pair of hits, including an RBI single. He was forced into action as the Crawdads were missing five players.
While teams are not above a beer in the parking lot after the game, like most adult recreational softball leagues, the competitiveness is escalated a few notches.
There was even a benches-clearing brawl at a game a few weeks ago, according to Morton.
“It gets heated sometimes,” Morton said. “There’s some chirping going on, but it’s all in good fun. It’s good to get those competitive juices flowing again.”
The team relies on good pitching, good defense and timely hitting to win ballgames. The Crawdads were missing the timely hitting in the 4-3 loss to the Hogs, but are still in a three-way tie for first place in the league with a 7-3 record with five games left to play.
If you find yourself bored on a Sunday afternoon or Thursday evening, make the trek to Schuyler and enjoy the best baseball you’ve never heard of. The Crawdads have home games remaining on July 2, 6, 9 and 11.