A World Championship
For eight days in August, a small team of scrappy New Mexico softball players took the world by storm, winning the 2012 Little League Softball Major Division World Series in Portland, Ore.
The Eastdale Little League team from Albuquerque didn’t have a team of near 6-footers. They didn’t have the reputation of Florida, West Texas, Mexico or the Philippines.
What they did show was a lot of heart and baseball skill. One of the adults who helped hone that skill was coach Reno Sanchez, a Jarales native and Belen High School alum.
When Reno Sanchez was growing up in Jarales, he liked sports but didn’t really play much organized ball. He said that he played for Belen his freshman year.
What he did take from his Valencia County roots was an exceptional work ethic and moral upbringing. He thanks his parents, Seferino and Lina Sanchez, for that.
Sanchez went on to the University of New Mexico to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1985; a master’s from Ivy League school Cornell, an MBA at Purdue and has taken specialized classes at Stanford.
His experience served the Eastdale girls, too. He has coached 46 baseball teams, 12 basketball teams, and seven softball teams since daughter Katherine inspired him to switch to softball two years ago. .
“A lot of people coach where a lot of the team is standing around,” said Sanchez. “That is not my philosophy. I always have them doing something. It means that we have field coaches, parents that help. We move them through hitting and fielding stations.”
He was quick to draw on his boys coaching experience, too. Sanchez has coached seven all-star boys teams with state regional titles and three state titles.
“The thing that I introduced to them was two-a-day practices,” said Sanchez. “It was just to get them trained. That is what I did with the boys. I was told that I couldn’t treat them like the boys. I said that I was going to treat them exactly like the boys and the girls ended up loving it.”
Sanchez took his first softball team to the state title and into regional play in 2011. Many of the Eastdale players had played on the league’s Minors team that beat host Enchantment to win a 2010 state title.
The Eastdale team faced Elgin of East Texas first in the 2011 regional, and had to come up with five runs in the top of the sixth and final inning to win, 6-5.
They stepped on the field next with East Texas Midway (Waco, Texas) and it was, in Sanchez’s word, “unbelievable.”
“The shortest girl was 5-foot, 5-inches and the tallest was 5-11. Unbelievable,” said Sanchez.
The team lost 17-2.
“It was the first time that I yelled at them,” said Sanchez, remembering the shock.
They faced Midway again and lost 10-0.
“We didn’t know that level existed,” said Sanchez of facing the powerful Waco team. “We had never seen a team like that Midway team. We realized the bar was a lot higher.”
He noted that the team out of the U.S. Southwest and U.S. Southeast brackets have traditionally been the toughest in little league softball. He knew that Midway, and Elgin for that matter, would be the teams his Eastdale girls would have to beat.
“My biggest fear was that we were going to be the second best team in the world and not go to the World Series.”
Sanchez went to work raising the bar in 2012. He had high school pitchers come in and throw their best stuff at batting practice. The team went to several tournaments in the spring, playing against 16-year-old teams.
He was still afraid that the bar was not high enough.
Eastdale beat traditional New Mexico power Silver in the state final and Sanchez was elated when the brackets came out for the Waco regional.
Both East and West Texas were on the other side of the bracket. The winner of the Eastdale side would get a day of rest before the double-elimination championship.
When they got to the regional, the bracket had changed. No day off — and Eastdale started with West Texas.
“We asked, they didn’t listen,” said an obviously upset Sanchez of efforts to reinstate the first bracket.
To add to the frustration, Midway didn’t win the West Texas title. It was a Lubbock team that won.
“We were trying to figure each other out,” said Sanchez, who had been following and studying Midway and Elgin.
Down to the West Texas club, 1-0, going into the top of the sixth. Katherine Sanchez walked Andrea Howard and scored on Shannon Stein’s single. Desiree Madrid hit a sacrifice fly to score a run and Eastdale took 2-1 win.
“It wasn’t pretty, but it worked,” said Sanchez.
Eastdale beat Elgin 10-0 and played West Texas again in the championship bracket. They won 8-5, and it was off to Portland for the Little League World Series.
In the Little League baseball World Series, the kids have already been on TV in the regional games. Every game of the Williamsport, Penn. tourney is broadcast on ESPN.
In softball, it is only the semi-final games of the tourney that make it to television.
“It became our goal to get to the ESPN game,” said Sanchez, noting the girls’ resolve to make the semifinals. “It means you have to make the top two in the pool play.”
Eastdale won the first game against the Philippines, 10-0. They beat Hawaii 4-0 the next day and Beat Hyde Park, N.Y., 9-3 the day after that. A Canadian team provided no trouble as Eastdale won 16-0 to sweep their pool play and go into the semis as the No. 1 team from pool B.
Eastdale beat an Indiana team, 12-1 and then dominated Windermere, Fla., 16-1 to win the World Series.
“One of the officials came up after the title game and told me he hated how easy we made it look,” said Sanchez. “He didn’t see us practice because we didn’t wait for our assigned field; we found one elsewhere in Portland. And the girls always have fun. It is all about the fun.”
Nine-year-old Rachel Hathoot played on the World Champion Eastdale team. She has a couple of seasons in front of her, and Sanchez really appreciated her hustle in right field.
Hathoot has family in Los Lunas.
Elated, Sanchez thinks that he will now be giving up coaching for good. Katherine is 13 years old and will move up in age brackets to amateur softball. Sanchez doesn’t see himself coaching at that level, but he certainly will help.
Sanchez noted that the support of his parents gave him the strength and knowledge to lead this group of pre-teen girls.
Those Jarales roots served Sanchez and the team well in Portland. The Valencia County values were there for the world to see and the New Mexico girls came home champions. But for their coach, they were champions before they ever got to Portland.
Sanchez explained that he could not have accomplished what he did with these girls without the support of his friends and the community.
“People were very generous,” he said. “I think we earned $1,500 for the regional and $4,000 for the World Series in donations. People were very generous. We can’t thank the people of New Mexico enough.”
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