CASPER – Over the course of the last ten days the Lander Lobos’ Senior Babe Ruth team has been dealt a seriously traumatic deck of cards. It was announced to the team at an emergency meeting on Sunday, July 2 that their head coach David Rees sadly passed away in an 4×4 accident and everybody’s emotions were on the table for the 4th of July parade as well as the practices in between. 

Then, just five days removed from their coach’s passing, they were on the field at Washington Park in Casper for the 2023 Sr. Babe Ruth State Tournament. The Lobos, who came into the season ready to defend their 2022 state title and reach their fifth-straight state championship game. 

They did a great job on the first day, beating up on the Gillette Hitmen early by going nine runs deep before the opposing team even stepped into the batter’s box. Lander did this with big hits by players like Kaden Rowan, Will Bush and Evan Stephenson and they did not have an out recorded against them until they were already up 7-0. 

Kaden Rowen gave Paxton Rees a high five after scoring Thursday in Casper. (p/c Carl Cote)

Stephenson also pitched extremely well, getting through the first inning with just four batters stepping up to the plate. After that, the Lobos continued to pile it on with a huge three-RBI double by catcher Sam Bush who ended up going four-for-four from the plate against Gillette. Lander smelled blood in the water after that, putting up a couple more runs before the mercy rule was enacted and the Lobos walked away with a 15-2 victory to start off their emotional weekend. 

Bush walked away as the Papa Murphy’s Player of the Game thanks to his four RBIs and three runs scored on his perfect day. 

“Over the last few games I hadn’t been doing so well so I was working on my batting a bit and every time I went up to the box I just said ‘This one’s for you David’,” Bush said after his perfect game. 

Sam Bush slid into second as the second basemen couldn’t gather the throw. (p/c Carl Cote)

The Lobos’ catcher was batting one spot ahead of Rowan, who ended up going three-for-four with two RBIs, and earning his second Gatorade Player of the Game award this season. 

“I was really just doing it for David,” Rowan said. “We’re just trying to get the bats going every game … everything we’re doing we’re doing for David.”

Stephenson ended up pitching all four innings, striking out eight of the 16 batters he faced and tossing 38 strikes on just 62 pitches (61.3% strike percentage). 

After the first game of the week the team, specifically Kelly Rees and her two children that she had with David, Peyton and Paxton, were gifted with a canvas picture of Coach Rees after their state championship win last season. It spurred tears from everyone in the stands, whether they resided in Lander or not, and was one of many memorializations of Rees’ memory that happened throughout the week.

“David!” was yelled in unison as the 2023 Lobos got together for one last huddle Sunday in Casper. (p/c Carl Cote)

The next day the Lobos took another early lead against the Glenrock Rams, a team they played often during the season, going up 8-2 before the third inning ever came around. They did so after the Rams tied up the game at two runs apiece in the first, knocking six runs onto the scoreboard in the second off another big double by Bush and a three-RBI double by Stephenson. 

Lander’s third inning mimicked their second, putting up five runs and going through the entire rotation for the second time in the game. Once the Lobos went up 13-2 it was obvious to see that Glenrock was struggling to control their bats and gloves, committing multiple errors and having trouble hitting against Connor Higginbotham and Rowan’s pitches. 

Glenrock did just enough to not have the mercy rule enacted after the fourth inning, scoring two runs thanks to one of their players being hit by a pitch and a subsequent walk pushing the runner on third to home. But, once the Lobos were only up nine runs they went off in the fifth to finish off the game with a 24-4 victory, marking their second mercy rule victory in as many games. 

Kaden Rowen narrowly dodged an inside pitch Thursday in Casper. (p/c Carl Cote)

“We love to see games like that,” Paxton Rees said after officially coaching his second Lobos game in place of his father. “It’s kind of hard to watch the other team because they get a little down, especially after you put on that many runs, but it was good to see that they were still having fun and our guys were still having fun.”

Higginbotham (five) and Rowan (six) combined for eleven strikeouts before Sam Bush stepped up to finish the game, striking out two of the final three batters to end the game. Bush also went three-for-four with four RBIs, joining Stephenson (three-for-five, five RBIs) as one of the better hitters in the game.

Later on that night, four current and former Lobos players participated in the 2023 Sr. Babe Ruth Home Run Derby and competed against some of the other teams’ best hitters. In the end, none of the Lobos’ players would win the derby or the personalized bat that was awarded to the winner but it served as a fun time and great opportunity to keep the boys’ focused and loose.

Finally, on Saturday morning, the Lobos took on another familiar face in the form of the Casper Crosshairs. The Crosshairs, playing on their home field in front of their home fans, had a big walk-off victory to start the weekend but were unable to keep it going after that. This showed in their game against Lander as well, but the Crosshairs were able to find a score in every single inning which gave them some momentum to end the weekend. 

It would not matter though as Lander started off the game up again, putting up two runs before Casper ever stepped up to bat. After Lander went up 8-1 in the second there were whispers that they could possibly enact their third-straight mercy rule in a row. Another six-run inning solidified that talk, helping them go up 14-3, but a big five-run inning by Casper in the bottom of the third kept them alive one more inning. 

“We’ve always worked on starting early [and] being aggressive at the plate,” Coach Carey said. “One of [Coach Rees’] things was we pick visitor, we actually want to start on the plate … because when you can put up the runs we have the last couple of days it’s a lot easier for your defense to play kind of free and it translates back to the bats. When you can put up five, six, seven runs an inning the other team is already way behind before they ever step up to the plate [and] it makes our jobs as coaches easier.”

Lander quickly dismissed the Crosshairs’ attempt with their biggest and best inning of the weekend, maybe even their entire season, as they went through their entire batting rotation nearly two times. The 17 batters combined for 14 runs in the top of the fourth, essentially snapping the Crosshairs’ neck in front of their own bleachers full of Casper fans. 

Sam Bush flexed after hitting a double Thursday in Casper. (p/c Carl Cote)

Sam Bush (above), who had already had his best two-day average with the bat in his hands, added to his amazing weekend with a grand slam late in the fourth which was celebrated by the entire team as well as many non-Lander fans who were all well aware of the team’s loss earlier that week. Bush ended up going three-for-five with eight RBIs and four runs scored. Stephenson went two-for-two in the game, bringing in four more RBIs and Will Bush added to it all by going two-for-three with an RBI and three runs scored. 

Darrius Boyer, who injured his ankle earlier in the week, tried to pitch in this game after not playing all week and did well with all things considered. Boyer tossed 60 pitches in just under three innings, striking out two Crosshair players and added two singles from the batter’s box that brought in two RBIs. Once Boyer began limping to first base is when he was taken from the game. 

In the end the Lobos did complete their third mercy-rule ending in as many games, beating the home team 28-9 and securing their place as the #1 seed from their pool on the final day of play. 

Their number-one seed meant they had to play against the only team they could not beat all year long: the Rock Springs Spartans. Lander played the Spartans three times this season, falling 10-4 in their most recent game as well as 3-1 and 1-0 in the other games. 

Revenge was on the mind of every Lobos player, but nothing trumped the feeling of winning in honor of their late coach. Sadly, they could not find the win that would have propped them up into their fifth-straight championship game. 

Rock Springs winning 6-1 ended the Lander season, and their emotional weekend, but nobody felt like the Lobos were failures in any fashion. 

“To come out here, five days after losing him, that took so much courage and strength,” Kelly Rees said about her husband’s team. “They played their hearts out.”

Tears were on display all over the Lobos dugout and bleachers, but everybody truly believed that Coach Rees would have been nothing other than proud of his defending state champions. Now, many of the boys will be moving onto college-level baseball if they haven’t already and the future of the Lobos will rest in the hands of coaches Shannon Stephenson and Ryan Carey. 

Below are some photos from the state tournament games, courtesy of Carl Cote:

By: Shawn O’Brate