SLO youth baseball team bound for Cooperstown tournament

The members of the SLO Tigers might be 12 years old, but they have been playing baseball together for years.

They started out as 8-year-old Cal Ripken All Stars who didn’t want to stop playing after the 21⁄2-month recreational baseball season ended. Jono Hicks, the team manager, said his son and teammates kept practicing, and they started their club baseball team in 2008.

For the past three years, Hicks said, the Tigers’ goal has been to make it to the Cooperstown Dreams Park and American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame Invitational Tournament. Now that goal is about to be realized: The Tigers will be going the week of June 2 to Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, to play in one of the top youth tournaments in the country.

“The Cooperstown tournament is kind of the crown jewel of youth baseball tournaments for 12-year-olds,” Hicks said. “The facility is just amazing, the quality of the teams you see there, and you see the diversity of teams from all over the country — even Canada and Mexico come play.”

Each week from June to August, groups of 104 youth league teams compete for the national title in the city known as the Home of Baseball. More than 1,300 teams will participate over the course of the summer. Each team is inducted into the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame, yielding bragging rights and exposure for the team and players, Hicks said.

There is no qualifying for Cooperstown — teams register and are selected from a lottery, Hicks said. The cost of the trip — including food, lodging, travel and registration — is about $1,500 per person. The Tigers won a place this year, but 800 teams across the nation were turned away, including a squad from Paso Robles.

“You’re going to spend a lot of money, it’s going to take a lot of time, you put a lot of effort into getting ready to go over there,” he said. “You don’t want to go if you’re just going to go over there and lose seven games and go home.”

So the Tigers had to be ready for the competition by the time they were eligible as a 12-and-under team. Over the years, the squad has added players from throughout the Central Coast region to its original Cal Ripken All Stars. There are 11 players, with six from San Luis Obispo. To meet the qualifications for Cooperstown, two players were recruited from Goleta.

“We’ve always tried to focus on San Luis Obispo,” Hicks said. “We’ve really built a team focusing on those original kids, which we currently have seven of the kids who have been playing together since 2009 on this team.”

In the most recent season rankings for the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) baseball 12-and-under AAA division, the SLO Tigers are No. 1 in the state out of 104 teams. They are No. 1 in the Western region out of 220 teams, and rank No. 3 nationally among 1,300 teams. So far this season, they have compiled a record of 31 wins, 11 losses and two ties.

The team was originally named the Mustangs, but now they wear black and gold and adopted the name the SLO Tigers after the local high school.

One reason for the Tigers’ success, according to both the players and the coaches, is defense.

“I think we’re a really good defensive team,” said 12-year-old second baseman Benny Rodgers. “We don’t usually make a lot of errors, but we always expose the other team if they make some.”

Third baseman Nate Guillen, 12, comes from Santa Maria to play for the Tigers. Even though he isn’t one of the veteran players, he can point out another reason for success.

“We just have really good chemistry together,” he said.

“There’s a lot of other teams that work in a school type atmosphere where you just have a whole bunch of kids working together and then you just pull people up to an A team or a B team,” center fielder Will Compton, 12, said. “Our team has just been together for five years, we’ve had very few added people so we all know each other very well, we’re all friends, and I think that’s a big deal.”

The coaches see this bond at every practice. Thomas Eager played with the Cal Poly Mustangs and was drafted for the St. Louis Cardinals, but now he coaches both the Cal Poly team and the Tigers, and he can see why the boys excel.

“These kids are slowly developing into being leaders on the team, every one of them. They’re around each other so much that they’re able to hold each other accountable, which you won’t see at this young of age,” he said.

Because of their teamwork, Eager can also teach the Tigers advanced techniques that are more common in high school baseball and college.

“(We’ve) had coaches come up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen a Little League team do something like that!’ ” he said. “That puts a smile on my face.”

Originally published May 14, 2012 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.


Arroyo Grande girl to compete in Italian youth games

Angela Gemignani, 13, was a child who didn’t sit still, said her mother, Sheila. The Arroyo Grande girl instead did handstands in the living room and wanted to run rather than walk. As she got older, her energy was channeled into competitive gymnastics and track and field.

Arroyo Grande High School track and cross-country coach Sean Ricketts began working with her when she was in fifth grade.

“She started doing my little youth running camps,” Ricketts said, who also is a physical education teacher at Paulding Middle School, where Angela is now an eighth-grader. “Right away I could see how talented she was, saw that she really enjoyed running at the same time.”

It’s little wonder that Angela is one of 20 American youths attending the Italian National Olympic Committee Youth Games in Salerno, Italy, later this month. Nor is it surprising that she attended last year and won the bronze in the 1,000-meter run.

“I was a little nervous because they didn’t let us see our parents at all, because they wanted the team to be together,” Angela said.

But she said she had fun and made lasting friendships with her teammates, some of whom are returning this year with her.

To qualify for the Italian youth games, an athlete needs to be one-quarter Italian, 11 to 15 years of age and pass a national tryout. Prospective entrants are tested not only on athletic ability, but their attitude.

“The best times may not be what makes us choose them for the team,” said youth games representative Mico Licastro.

Organizers also take into account a young person’s personality, because the athletes are not yet at their full potential, he said.

Gary Heckman, Angela’s track coach at Paulding Middle School, can attest to her personality. He said she was humble and quiet, but always smiling, even though after she left track practice she would go to four-hour gymnastics practice.

“I see a student who has outstanding behavior, everything you want in an athlete,” he said. “Competitive, willing to take direction, very flexible in what’s going on, doesn’t get ruffled at all. Very easily approachable.”

Larry Goldzman, her physical education teacher — who calls her Angie — sees much of what Heckman does.

“The best thing about her is she’s always smiling and laughing and she’s out having fun with all of her friends and then — bam,” he said. “We’ll start playing a sport or going out for a little fitness run or do anything and she’s just focused.”

Angela isn’t the only one going to Italy. Team organizers choose 12 track and field athletes and eight swimmers, split evenly between girls and boys, to fly to Italy and compete against not only Italian youths, but international teams, as well.

Youths from other nations are invited to be in the games, where it is primarily Italian athletes competing in a variety of Olympic sports. Venezuela, Switzerland, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and America are currently the international teams competing alongside Italy.

Licastro has been with the program for three years and enabled the American team to join the youth games after more than a decade of absence.

He emphasized that there were two goals: to teach participants about the ethics of the Olympic movement and to connect them with their Italian heritage. The Olympics are not just about medals, he said, but about athletes being the best they can be.

“The main goal is to offer service to the citizens of the country who are invited to participate,” Licastro said. “For the children to have an opportunity to go to Italy and to reach some better understanding of where their parents or grandparents came from.”

While the trip will steep the youths in Italian culture, Angela revealed that last year she only ate pizza once, and it wasn’t exactly Italian.

“They put french fries and hot dogs on it because we’re American,” she said. “They only gave it to us, not like the people from Canada.”

Athletes who stand out in the games might also have a toe in the door for the Olympics. “Children who have strong potential, we bring them to the attention of the proper people to be considered for the evaluation,” Licastro said.

Originally published June 5, 2012 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Student fights rare form of cancer

Delaney Lemus is one of 500 people diagnosed with Wilms' tumor each year. "She was getting her education and just trying to get a good start in life," Delaney's father, Luis Lemus, Jr. said. Courtesy photo.

Delaney Lemus completed her first year at Cal Poly as an agriculture business major without knowing she wouldn’t be returning back in the fall.

Up to this point, she was very active and athletic. She was a very happy person, always joking around, and before recent events, enjoyed playing volleyball and hanging out at the beach with her friends, her father Luis Lemus, Jr. said.

But Delaney is one of the many college-aged young adults who find themselves battling cancer while attempting to get a start on life.

According to the LIVESTRONG Young Adult Alliance, a program started by the Lance Armstrong Foundation, there has been no improvement in survival rates for young adults since 1975. This is also complicated by whether they are put into adult or pediatric care — in the world of cancer research, the term “young adult” encompasses anyone from 15 to 39 years old, with about 70,000 cases each year.

Resources for young adults with cancer can be found over the Internet, from the National Collegiate Cancer Foundation, which provides financial support for college students going through treatment. Each focuses on the underrepresented young adult cancer patients and survivors, helping them get through not being able to go to school, to work or to live the life they dreamed of — before cancer reared its ugly head.

For Delaney, there were no signs of the cancer at first. She was very active but complained about back pains and couldn’t eat much before getting full. There was also the tiny lump in her abdomen. Her parents finally took her to see a doctor. In August 2009, the tests revealed she had a rare form of childhood cancer in the kidneys. It came as a total surprise to her father.

“The only thing I know about cancer is it’s bad,” Lemus said.

She had a rare form of cancer called Wilms’ tumor.

There are only about 500 new cases each year of Wilms’ tumors, which accounts for five percent of all childhood cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

The cause is not from the environment or her lifestyle, and it could not be prevented. What sets her apart is that the average age of a child diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor is 3, and it becomes less common as the child ages. Delaney was 19 when she found out.

“She was getting her education and just trying to get a good start in life,” Lemus said.

They took her to the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, where she had the tumor and her kidney removed. After months of chemotherapy and radiation, Delaney’s cancer went into remission, and she resumed her old pastimes.

“She bounced back and played in a volleyball city league,” Lemus said.

In December 2010, after nine months of remission, they found the second tumor in her other kidney, bigger than the last.

“We had a few setbacks, (the doctors) tried to do aggressive chemotherapy to shrink it,” Lemus said. “(It was) applying pressure to her lungs and heart.”

During treatment, she got an infection that led to kidney failure. On Jan. 31, they operated to remove the tumor. She suffered severe blood loss and was in critical condition.

“It was a desperation surgery, they had no choice,” Lemus said. “They were able to get 95 percent of the tumor out.”

Despite all that has happened, Delaney has held on. She is still in the hospital, about to undergo more chemotherapy and radiation. She’s also been going through physical therapy and has started eating small amounts, smiling and laughing.

She didn’t speak for seven weeks while on the ventilator but now can talk with her sisters, who visit her often, Lemus said. Her father called the whole thing an “emotional rollercoaster” where they didn’t know what was around the next turn. Things are starting to go his daughter’s way again, though.

The community recently came together in support of the young woman and her family. Her friends banded together and created a Facebook group, Twitter and website called “Let’s Support Laney!” Well-wishers can post fundraising events and comments for Delaney on the website. There are currently 565 members of the Facebook group.

Other than Web page backing, Delaney is also garnering support with weekend fundraisers.

In the pouring rain last week, people came to the small parking lot by the Nipomo Miner’s Hardware store, between a drive-thru Starbucks and Taco Bell, to pay for drinks, chips and tri-tip sandwiches with $10 donation tickets. Carol Mahoney, a relative on her mother’s side, has been overseeing fundraising efforts for Delaney.

“They were drenched trying to get these tickets,” Mahoney said.

Her husband and other family members cooked 1,000 pounds of tri-tip and sold about 2,200 sandwiches altogether that day.

There will also be a blood drive during the second week of March at the United Blood Services Center for Delaney, who will need approximately 80 units of blood. On March 12, they will hold another barbecue and silent auction at St. Patrick’s Catholic Elementary School in Arroyo Grande.

Monica Wilson, a hair stylist at Tutta Bella Salon in Arroyo Grande, is participating in the silent auction. She donated hair products and a haircut for the fundraiser because, she said, everyone should do their part since every little bit helps.

“I just hope somehow they can help her,” Wilson said. “It’s got to be really hard for her and her family.”

In the end, the Lemus family is grateful for all the help the community has given.

“It’s a good, positive feeling for Delaney, and we just can’t say thank you enough,” her father said.

Any donations can be sent by checks payable to: “Delaney Lemus Benefit” c/o Rabobank, 615 Tefft St., Nipomo, CA 93444.

Originally published in the Mustang Daily.

Past the basketball shoes, Hanson is just your average college student

Forward David Hanson is Cal Poly’s leading scorer this season, averaging 16 points and six rebounds per games. Photo by Ryan Sidarto.

There is a distinct difference in forward David Hanson’s personality on and off the court. When he’s playing, he is focused, aggressive, serious, instinctual and completely set on getting the team a win.

Off the court, however, his friends and family describe him as an easygoing, laid back prankster who likes hot chocolate, reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and teen-pop sensation Justin Bieber.

“He is completely bipolar,” said his brother Matthew, a Cal Poly alumnus who is now playing professional basketball in Australia. “You will see two different sides of him, but that’s what makes him so effective.”

Even while in high school, Hanson displayed his leadership abilities as captain of the basketball team three out of his four years. His high school coach Jeff Wahl said it was like having another coach on the floor.

“He had a knack to bring out the best in others,” Wahl said.

Hanson also displayed his kindness and good nature, as a well-liked student in his small Christian school — Maranatha Christian Academy — of less than 800 students in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

“He was classy all the time, befriended everybody,” Wahl said. “Everyone wanted to emulate him.”

Hanson grew up in Minnesota as the middle child of 10, with seven brothers and two sisters. He ended up playing basketball because of his brothers. His father, Tim Hanson, said his son gets along with many people because of his good character and his desire to “be a blessing” to people he meets.

“(His faith) accounts for the really positive qualities in his life,” he said.

In fact, one of the biggest aspects of Hanson’s life is his faith. He was raised Lutheran and is devoted to attending church, Campus Crusade and Athletes in Action, where athletes use sports to help answer questions of faith. He reads the Bible every day and even holds Bible studies when traveling to away games.

“My faith in the Lord, my relationship with him, that’s first priority,” Hanson said. “Everything that I do — basketball, school, relationships — it filters down into all those things.”

He attends church with his best friend and roommate Joel McKnight, an agricultural business junior. Hanson best exemplifies his off court personality at home where they share a room. Hanson has two posters of Justin Bieber and a quilt his mother made for him when he was born. He’s obsessed with keeping their room clean and keeps everything organized.

McKnight also said Hanson is a horrible cook, but he loves going out to places like Panda Express, Firestone and Chipotle. McKnight considers Hanson a great roommate and a great friend.

“Really loving, caring towards us, always looking out (for us),” McKnight said. “Kind of fatherly, shepherding us to make sure everything’s going all right.”

When not playing basketball, Hanson enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking and has tried to take up surfing, but admits he’s horrible at it. He also attends all of his roommates’ sports games when he can.

His other roommate and best friend, business administration senior Ricky Franklin, said they often walk down to the Chevron by their house to get hot chocolate and a DVD from the Redbox rental kiosk. Hanson likes to relax in solitude, watching movies like Step Brothers and The Hangover or “really stupid” reality shows.

“He loves ‘The Hills’ and ‘Jersey Shore,’” Mc Knight said. “(Television) shows he finds entertaining. He never had cable growing up.”

He expressed his distaste for Hanson’s attire, calling them “hideous massive thermals,” and said Hanson didn’t wear his basketball attire unless he had to. Hanson responded by saying in Minnesota you wear thick clothes and it’s just a habit. He also said he doesn’t like wearing his basketball gear because off the court he wants to show he’s not “such a jock.”

Yet, Hanson’s main priorities are “God, family, friends, basketball, in that order,” Franklin said.

Sometimes, these priorities overlap for Hanson. Maliik Love, guard on the team, said he knows his captain is always there for him. He describes Hanson as dead serious and competitive on game day but relaxed and loose off the court. Love said Hanson is the funniest person on the team.

“To me, he’s like a big brother,” Love said. “And a great leader out there on the floor.”

As a forward, Hanson is considered short for the position, standing 6-feet-5-inches tall. Forwards from other schools, such as UCSB’s Jaimé Serna and Jon Pastorek or UC Davis’ Mike Kurtz and Alex Tiffin, are all four to seven inches taller than him. That doesn’t stop Hanson, who scored a career-high 29 points against Cal State Bakersfield Jan. 29.

“I’m definitely undersized but I think I make up for it by being faster than the guy that’s guarding me which allows me to get open more,” Hanson said.

He said he doesn’t let the pressure of being captain of the team get to him and has just embraced it.

“I knew coming into this year that it would be a really big year for me and the team was going to need me,” Hanson said. “So I put in a lot of work in the summertime and I was really focused. I was confident coming in.”

While every win is something to celebrate, he takes from basketball something more than that.

“The memories that you make with the guys and the people you meet, in the arenas you play in,” Hanson said. “I think that’s the experiences that you remember.”

Originally published February 11, 2011 in the Mustang Daily.

PolyCon attendees gather around a large table covered in miniature landscapes ranging from oceans, frozen tundra, humid jungles, and barren wastelands.

Get your game on at the annual Polycon

PolyCon attendees gather around a large table covered in miniature landscapes ranging from oceans, frozen tundra, humid jungles, and barren wastelands.

PolyCon attendees participated in activities ranging from live action roleplaying, video gaming and playing on a giant board game throughout the weekend. Katelyn Sweigart - Mustang Daily

Although most attendees aren’t even remotely related, the gaming convention PolyCon has become a family reunion for many people in the 29 years since its creation.

The convention is produced by Cal Poly students and alumni, and draws an annual crowd to participate in everything from board games, card games, live action roleplaying (LARPing), pen and paper roleplaying games, video games, Nerf Wars and everything in between.

This year, it was held in the University Union (UU) at Cal Poly, and took up the entire second floor. Joe Parzanese, the event’s coordinator, said the crowd is varied, and some “con goers” are in their 70s.

“Predominantly, you end up getting the basic roleplaying sci-fi geek-type person,” he said. “But you do get a variety of historical miniature players, war gamers and things like that.”

The convention runs for an entire weekend, with games that can run from dusk until dawn. Attendees can rent dorm rooms to stay in during PolyCon, because convention staff doesn’t allow people to sleep in the UU at night.

“There are 2 a.m. games, but this is not a hotel,” Parzanese said.

In the past, the convention was larger, but due to the recession only five dealers were able to set up booths to sell wares ranging from period costumes to books, games and even 10-minute massages.

“No one who sells things in L.A. or San Francisco wants to drive 320 miles, especially when (we) are one-fifth the size of the cons up there,” he said.

But some people came from much farther than 320 miles to attend PolyCon. Cal Poly alumna Aimee Moisa took a plane and three trains from Kauai, Hawaii with her 2-year-old daughter Emma and husband Jon. She first attended the convention in 1990 and met her first and second husbands there.

“I don’t have any physical family here,” Moisa said. “But these are my relatives. I’ve known half a dozen of the guys in there 20 years. And the rest of them I’ve met over the course of the last 20 years.”

This is the first time her daughter attended PolyCon, although she isn’t old enough to play the games. Moisa said she loves to play Dungeons and Dragons, a pen and paper fantasy roleplaying game, but spent most of the convention visiting friends and introducing her daughter to them while her husband played games and performed medieval combat demonstrations with the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).

“This group is the kind of the group that you can really just trust,” she said. “Trust yourself with, trust your life with, trust your family with. And that’s what I love most about them.”

Moisa wasn’t the only mother at the convention. Christine Cipriano brought her daughter Mia to PolyCon last summer. Cipriano said Mia primarily plays in the Nerf War, where participants shoot each other with foam darts. Her daughter wore an adult-sized black vest with her guns, ammunition and a Nerf sword sheathed on the back.

“She really loved it,” Cipriano said. “So every time she hears about PolyCon, she (says), ‘Oh, we’re going to play Nerf Wars?’ So we bring all her Nerf stuff, and this time we went and got a vest.”

Not only does the convention attract players, but also people who like to run games, dubbed Game Masters (GMs).

Atascadero resident Michael Judd created and constructed his own fantasy roleplaying game, Gildan, and planned to give it a test run during the convention. Unfortunately, no one signed up to play his game, but he considers it all a part of the creative process.

“The original idea behind this was to use technology to create,” he said.

Judd was also a guest speaker, and had a time slot to show his own micro-budget films, “God’s Forsaken Children” and “Drama in the House on Haunted Hill.”

“’Drama in the House on Haunted Hill’ is actually designed to help people understand how public domain stuff can help them, to show them an example of how they can use public domain to make money,” he said. “I was originally making it to inspire troubled young men. To show them what to do with a little money and a lot of creative work; give them some type of (outlet).”

There is a lot of variety at PolyCon, hosting every flavor of gaming experience a casual or hardcore gamer could want. One of the largest games ran was Pygmy — a large-scale game featuring a 128 square-foot board game. Morro Bay High School history teacher Sean True was one of the founders of the game, which was created 20 years ago.

“It’s a large scale roleplaying game where everything is there, as opposed to a pencil and paper where they sort of ask you to imagine everything,” True said. “We build everything and we have everything very interactive.”

Players walked around the giant game board, which True said took five and a half hours to set up, holding clipboards with cups full of dice, going through miniaturized terrains including a jungle, snow mountains, a desert, a turbulent sea and medieval fortresses.

“We like to keep our rules as simple as possible because our game is designed for pick-up players who have never played before to be able to jump in and very simply run things,” he said.

The Pygmy pieces used in the game were based off ones they found in a store in Santa Monica — a part of the owner’s private collection. When the owner refused to sell them, they called up the original manufacturer in England. They no longer made the figurines, but still had the molds and they made some up for them.

“It’s kind of our labor of love that we’ve been doing a long time, and we get a lot out of seeing other people getting to play and have fun with our game,” True said. “Everybody thinks that we’re crazy and maybe we are, but it’s a blast once a year to get together with people you don’t see otherwise and get to have some active art, and that’s what Pygmy is.”

Although some attend PolyCon for the games, other attend for the demonstrations.

Basia Brown is a member of SCA and came to the convention in full period costume. She was also there and to promote SCA, but she said she’s attended PolyCon for seven years. She likes taking part in the Dungeons and Dragons tournament, where players are judged by their acting skills, problem solving and overall sportsmanship, she said.

“It’s really great how the same people come back every year, and it’s like a big family reunion,” Brown said. “I really love that because people move away but we all come back for PolyCon.”

Originally published in the Mustang Daily.