Youth baseball strong despite pandemic
Marathon travel teams played 84 games this year
Ron Kunkel, Marathon Youth Baseball Program coordinator, reflects on how teams have improved over the years and during this summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, he answers questions about the youth program moving forward in the future.
Kunkel just finished his eighth year in charge of the Marathon Youth Baseball Program. He reflects on how strong the program was at first when he took over compared to how great it is now.
“When I took over the summer league program in Marathon in 2013, it was just to replace someone that was looking at getting out because his kids were done and moved onto high school ball,” Kunkel said. “I just became responsible for the boys’ city league stuff and looked to keep that program running. Three months of the year went into making sure this league ran smoothly and all the kids in town had a team to play on.”
How much has the Marathon Youth Baseball Program grown since you took over being in charge of it?
“In city leagues, our participation the last two years has been about 20 percent up from when I started running the league in 2013,” Kunkel said. “We want kids to participate and have fun. I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have the group of coaches I’ve had over the last several years that love being with the boys, love the game of baseball and work hard at teaching the boys all aspects of the game. There are too many coaches to mention that have made this go extremely well.”
Is the Marathon Youth Baseball Program now more than just a city league?
“At the end of my first year of running the league, Keith Baumgartner from Edgar reached out to me and asked if I would want to get an eightyear- old team together and come play in a tournament he was going to have in Edgar,” Kunkel said. “I honestly didn’t know where to start but thought we could pull that off. I was told if I ask 15 to 16 kids that I’d probably get about 10 to 12 to commit to putting this team together. We ended up with 14 kids committing and we joined the 8U tournament in Edgar that year. What that did was kick off the Marathon Baseball Youth Travel team program before we even realized it.”
Where are these boys now?
“Most of them made it all the way through 14U, which we just finished up this season; they are now off to high school baseball,” Kunkel said. “We lost a couple kids through the years and added some others but Jorey Kunkel, Tyler Underwood, Cooper Hoeksema, Jake Lepak, Clayton Marcott, Casey Hollenbeck, Derek Vesely and Pierson Hamman stuck with the team every year that we’ve been doing this.
“As the head coach, I also had Kevin Underwood and Cal Vesely help me coach every year since we started. With our teams being in many tournaments over the years and taking second place to Medford, which seemed like every time, we finally got over the hump in 13U when we won our first tournament in Mosinee. This year, these boys also played on the Bronco and high school teams during the summer.”
What other teams are involved in the Marathon Youth Baseball Program?
“This year we ended the season with having the 14U team, along with a 12U, 11U, 10U, 9U and 8U team in which we pride ourselves on using kids from Marathon to fill these teams,” Kunkel said.
Were teams playing in the Marathon Youth Baseball Program able to get in a lot of games this summer compared to many local teams?
“Yep, I just reached out to all the coaches and towns I had contact information for,” Kunkel said. “Marathon City Sports Center gave me access to their field to hold practices, games and tournaments and we had families that were willing to travel despite all the things going on around us. Our 14U/Bronco team ended up playing 19 games, while our 12U team played 24 games, our 11U team played 10 games, our 10U team played 12 games, our 9U team played 13 games and our new 8U team played six games. This is way more games played than any of us were thinking would happen when spring came around.”
Are you involved with all the Marathon youth travel teams too?
“Yeah, I am the Marathon Youth Baseball coordinator and this covers all those too,” he said. “I take care of all the scheduling, finances, equipment, apparel and communications as needed. I guess this is my call to duty in Marathon. I love being around all the teams and getting to know the boys coming up behind my own.”
Do you coach as well?
“A little bit, I guess,” Kunkel joked. “Besides running the city league and the travel teams, I am also head coach the 12U, 14U and Bronco teams, along with being an assistant coach on the Marathon High School team. My baseball plate is full.”
Has the Marathon 12U team been good for many years, and how did it get started?
“I actually didn’t start the thought process for this team,” Kunkel admits. “I was busy with my oldest son’s team at the time this team was forming. My good friend, Kraig Underwood, stopped over at my house one night and said he was thinking of putting a 7U team together. He wanted to know what I thought and if my son, who was in the grade below his son, would be interested in being on the team. I thought it was a good idea, so he put a team together with seven-year-olds, one sixyear old and two older boys while we played a couple 8U games.
“After he assembling the team, Kraig asked if I would be the head coach, and after much thinking, I decided I would do it. Our original eight boys consisting of Quillan Kunkel, Blake Underwood, Cale Quaintance, Reed McCain, Hudson Voigt, Chris Marcell, Evan DeBroux and True Thurs are all currently still on our current 12U team that just finished up its season. In our second year for 8U, we added Drew Woelfel, Grant Salber, Cameron Pestka and Alex Poppe. All 12 of these boys are still on the team. With the coaching help of Kraig Underwood, Ryan McCain and Clint Quaintance all these years, along with many others that helped out, we stressed respect, discipline and defense extremely hard over the years. Since we did that together and consistently, it has paid off.”
How did the start of their first full year together go?
“Well, I’ll never forget it,” Kunkel remembered. “Our first tournament in 8U was in Waupaca against some big schools. In the games for this tournament, the max runs a team could score were six per inning. With the other team batting first, we gave up six runs right off the bat in the top of the first, and Kraig and I looked at each other and I think wondered what we got ourselves into. “With the game only lasting four total innings, we scored 24 runs ourselves while holding the other team to only the original six they got in the first. The boys went on to win their first tournament ever that weekend and ended up winning all four of their tournaments that year while not losing a game. With a slow start to the 9U season the next year, now that kids pitched, we realized fast that we needed to develop as many pitchers as we could. To date all 12 of these boys have pitched in games for us over the years. So now finishing up their last year of playing on the small field, these 12 boys have stuck together all these years and are special for that.
“With an overall six-year record of 109-17, while winning 14 of the 24 tournaments they’ve been in while only taking no worse than third place once and winning the Badger State Games Tournament in 2019, these accomplishments also make them special. Most of all, when it’s time to play they play. The attack mode these boys have is what makes them most special. We’ve played a lot of big schools over the years and we’ve shown them what a tough small school is made of. The willingness to work hard, fight together, be disciplined and commit to as many events as we can get into is what makes this team and these families special. They have no excuses for not getting into a game or a tournament and it shows. Each of these kids sacrificed something to make this team better, and for that I’m extremely proud of them. They’ve earned what they’ve gotten because they are committed to put Marathon baseball and this team first, while adjusting their personal schedules to make sure these boys have opportunities to play.”
Do you have more Marathon youth baseball teams coming up behind this team?
“Oh yeah, we have some nice players and teams coming up behind them,” Kunkel said. “Coaches are working hard, as our two older teams really set the bar high and set the standard for Marathon Youth Baseball. Each of these upcoming younger teams has some talent and nice kids. I just hope the families can stay committed to the journey and keep letting the kids get into these tournaments and play.
“I struggle when we can’t get into an event because we don’t have enough boys to play. Every missed opportunity to play is a missed opportunity to grow. Whether you play a lot or sit on the bench more than others, being at a game and learning is important and better than just not going at all. We have a lot of people that have jumped in and coached our youth teams. Those that don’t coach, I’ve tried to encourage them to get involved with something else that can help. The statement... ’It take a village... holds true here.’” What’s next for teams in the Marathon Youth Baseball Program?
“Teams need to keep playing games with no excuses,” Kunkel said. “My job is to give them the opportunities to play in games and tournaments. Whether this is in City League or Travel Teams or Bronco games, we try to teach to the boys who are interested they need to learn and respect the game at all levels. Having fun in baseball is extremely important, but we are trying to teach them to play the game the right way is what makes it the most fun.
“I hope this can keep going like it has been. When it comes to travel teams, we need parents in each class to step up and coach or their class might not have a team. We have multiple dads coaching multiple teams right now and that is hard on them, so I will continue to tell people to step in and help, regardless if you know anything about baseball or not. Marathon’s baseball future looks bright, but it will be up to the kids if they decide that want to commit to pushing themselves to make their high school teams great. Go Raiders!!”