On a 50-game winning streak, the Delaware Vipers will head to South Carolina this weekend in hopes of winning it all – the championships at the Ripken Experience, a week-long tournament in Myrtle Beach. Did I mention the players are 10-years-old?
The 10s, as they’re called, are part of the Delaware Vipers Baseball Academy, a travel team that started about eight years ago as an alternative to recreational teams.
“There really wasn’t a travel organization around. We were kinda the charter, per se, in starting this,” said Vipers president Tony Marenco. “It was just an avenue that we saw to give kids an opportunity, if they wanted to play at a higher level, at a more competitive level and stay together.”
Unlike rec teams, the Vipers play on the same team for years. The 10s have been together for the past three years.
“We’re all best friends, we sleep over each other’s houses a lot, we play ball together all the time, we have practice almost every day and we’re all just friends,” said Jakob Hoffman, a player for the 10s, who seemed a lot more like an 18-year-old than a 10-year-old. And that goes for the entire team.
“What’s incredible about this group is at their age how serious they take the game, how committed they are to the game,” Marenco added. “When they step between the lines it is a focus like I’ve never seen before at an age group like this.”
“We’ve just got the right mix of kids that really enjoy playing together, take this game seriously and have a lot of fun at the same time. Having said that, it is a very unique group,” said C.J. Hoffman, head coach of the 10s.
And people are taking notice, including the Vipers’ older teams. Rising 7th grader, John Weglarz, Jr., says the older players are learning a few things from the 10s.
“With us, like sometimes we don’t pick each other up and put our heads down and we stop. With them, they’ll just keep putting their heads up and they’ll just keep playing.”
But with all this attention, coaches say the Delaware Vipers now have a big target on their backs as other teams vie to be the team to put an end to the Vipers’ streak. And Marenco says that day will inevitably come.
“We actually try to teach ‘em to understand how to lose and how to persevere cause those are the things that once they get out of baseball and get into life, it’s when you get knocked down, can you get back up?”
The Ripken Experience national tournament runs from Sunday to Friday, and assuming the 10s make it all the way to the championships, they could be looking at playing nine games in just five days.
“This is a great opportunity for us, being a small local team to go against some bigger clubs down from different areas and different regions in the country so our kids are really excited to see different competition in that type of setting,” said Coach Hoffman.
“I’m feeling pretty good because I think we’ve got a pretty good shot at winning this,” said the 10s’ Jakob.
If Jakob has anything to say about it, come next week, the Vipers’ record will be 59-0.
Not just about baseball
The coaching staff with the Delaware Vipers Baseball Academy are definitely baseball guys. President Tony Marenco has been coaching baseball at Red Lion Christian Academy for 20 years, vice president John Weglarz has had stints with the Kansas City Royals, the Baltimore Orioles and pitched in the minor leagues for the Blue Rocks and 10s coach C.J. Hoffman played in college.
But all three say the lessons the kids learn about the game go beyond the confines of the baseball diamond.
“They learn about discipline, they learn about character, they learn that hard work, winning is the result of hard work. It just doesn’t come easy,” said Marenco.
“Sometimes you have kids that are more talented than others, but you have to tell them, and you have to drill it in them that, ‘Hey, listen, this is a team here. There’s not one person that can get this job done,’” said Weglarz.
Coaches say the kids also learn through community service and fundraising events.
The Delaware Vipers has teams ranging in age from 10 to 16-years-old. Team costs range from $750 to $1500 a year, which covers costs for uniforms, practice and tournament fees.