Band of Brothers Continue Journey to Slippery Rock University

| June 9, 2018

SUGARCREEK, Pa. – On a hot day in July, nearly six years ago, Franklin Little League’s twelve-year-old all-star team was getting set to take on Harborcreek Little League’s all-star team for the Section One championship and for a chance to travel to the Pocono Mountains to play for a state title.

There were ten players on that roster and five of those players are currently five of the six seniors on Rocky Grove’s history-making and three-time district ten champions, 2018 baseball team. Those players include Travis Perry, Conner Curran, Tyler Clayton, Koby Winslow, and Justin Heller.

In fact, all six of the current seniors would have been a part of that all-star roster if it were not for the fact that Hunter Bruner lived outside of Franklin Little League’s boundaries, making him ineligible for tournament play.

On that day in July, a hard-throwing, 6’1”, red-headed standout took the mound for Franklin against a Harborcreek team that Franklin had struggled to beat in year’s past. In fact, some had expected them to make a run for Williamsport because of the amount of talent on the roster. Franklin was hoping to ride Travis Perry’s 75 MPH fastball and an arsenal of devastating off-speed pitches to the Poconos.

Harborcreek got to Perry in the first, scoring three runs off the righty.

The ace walked to the dugout, looked his manager in the eye and stated, “They won’t score one more run off of me.”

They didn’t.

Franklin, however, scored twelve.

That same fire throwing redhead, now sporting an 87 MPH fastball and 6’7” in stature, now has the opportunity, six years later, to again hurl his team to an opportunity to play for a state championship.

Six years ago, that all-star team finished fifth in the state of Pennsylvania. For Rocky Grove’s six seniors, however, it actually goes back further than those twelve-year-old all-star days.

As eight-year-olds, these seniors were entering competitive baseball at a time when travel baseball teams were growing in popularity. Teams were being assembled from multiple cities and even states to play an endless amount of tournaments in the summer months. It was growing to a point where Little League Baseball was beginning to take a back seat to these travel teams.

Troy Winslow is the father of current Grove second baseman Koby Winslow and a former standout basketball and baseball player himself at Rocky Grove. When Koby was eight, Troy assembled a travel team that would exist for the next five years. What made this travel team unique, however, was that it was made up of all players from one community and every single player also participated fully in Franklin’s Little League season each year.

He won’t admit it, but Winslow’s willingness to bring together a group of boys and teach them the game that they love today at such a young age is a major reason that the Orioles are still playing today.

Known as the Franklin Mudhens, Winslow’s team traveled across the state of Pennsylvania and Ohio playing in tournaments nearly every weekend from April through August. The Mudhens played true travel teams and beat many of those teams as they played roughly sixty games every summer during their ten through twelve-year-old years.

The Mudhens roster consisted of five of the six of the current Rocky Grove senior baseball players. Perry wouldn’t move into the Rocky Grove School district until he was twelve.

Although Troy Winslow may not take credit for the development of this talented group, the seniors know and recognize the foundation that was laid during their younger years.

Oriole second basemen, Koby Winslow stressed the importance of learning the fundamentals of the game at such a young age.

“Learning the game at a young age definitely gives you a huge advantage. It helps you deal with those big game situations because you have been there before. All of those tournaments that we played in taught us how to overcome adversity and win.”

“The biggest thing for us was the great coaching that we had at such a young age, claimed catcher, Justin Heller. “When we played for the Mudhens and those all-star teams we had three great coaches in Blane Gold, Dan Haun, and Troy Winslow. They taught us so much at a young age that we have been able to grow on.”

Outfielder Tyler Clayton explained how playing in high-pressure situations as a twelve year has helped him in the Oriole’s current state run.

“The most important experience I had was making it to states as twelve-year-olds. That taught us about what it would take to become a state champion.”

Conner Curran echoed Clayton’s feelings about getting experience at the state level at such a young age.

“Playing in a state atmosphere at twelve helped our experience so much at such a young age and in my opinion has given us an edge over other teams. Our coaches never handed us participation trophies or sugar coated anything. We had to work for everything that we got.”

“Our experience is big for us,” added Hunter Bruner. We’ve played in so many big games and have been put in different positions.”

For anyone who watches the historic run that this Orioles baseball team is currently on, it’s easy to see that it is more than baseball for these six young men. For them, playing baseball together for the last ten years has created a bond between them that will never be broken. Odds are that no matter what adversity arises during a game in which they play, they have already dealt with it in the hundreds of games that they have played together.

“Playing with your best friends for ten years and not switching over to a private school or moving away is rare nowadays,” explained Curran. “Playing with these guys for this long has helped us so much. We build each other up when we’re down and we all have each other’s back.”

Bruner described the trust factor that has developed within this team because of playing together for so long.

“Playing with the same guys who are also your best friends for so long makes it even better. It makes it easy to play because you can trust player next to you because you have been with them for so long.”

For Winslow, it goes beyond friendship.

“It’s crazy to think how long I have been playing with these guys. A lot of us see each other every day, so it’s just like playing with your brothers. We all have the same goal and we just need to finish what we started.”

“It means everything making this run with the guys I’ve been playing with for my whole life,” added Clayton. We’re all so close and play so well together. It’s a blast playing with all your best friends and even more fun when you make a run like this.”

While Perry has grabbed his fair share of headlines this season. He’s the first to tell you that it would not be possible without his “boys.”

“It’s been an honor playing with these guys. These five guys are going to be my best friends for life. After playing against them when I went to Oil City to go to states with them when I moved to Franklin, it’s just indescribable how much these boys mean to me and how much it would mean to all of us if we get that state title to end the historic story the right way.”

Perry, Clayton, and Winslow chat during a Little League game.

Oriole manager, Bill Wilson quite possibly is the only person who appreciates these seniors more than they appreciate each other.

“They have been leaders since they started. When they were freshman, they made everyone older than them elevate their game in order to keep their starting spots and from there, we have been improving to this day. They have been cohesive the entire four years with one another and also with the players who were older and younger than them. Their cohesiveness is a major reason for their success.”

Success may actually be an understatement for this group. Playing in four straight district championship games and winning three of them puts you in a class all your own. These seniors undeniably make up the most talented class that Rocky Grove baseball has ever seen.

But, like all things in life, the sand is slipping through the hourglass for these boys that have never not been teammates.

This time next week, win or lose, their unbelievable run will be over.

While all of them understand that time is of the essence, Curran probably summed up that sentiment the best.

“Winning a state championship with these guys has always been a dream to me. To actually think we are two games away from that is crazy. This group of seniors that I play with is a group that I will never forget. We are surrounded by excellent coaches and parents that support us every day. You couldn’t ask for better people in this community.”

Rocky Grove will continue their journey on Monday at Slippery Rock University against Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic at 4:00 p.m.

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