The Last Hurrah for the Western Slope JackRabbits
A horde of baseball players envelop their coach as they form a pre-game huddle before taking the field. The team is dressed in all white with a green stripe down their pants, the team’s name emblazoned in bright orange lettering: Western Slope JackRabbits. After the coaches give their last pre-game preparation speeches the team comes together to break the huddle with a resounding “Family!” before they all scatter onto the field.
Three years ago, Erik Slade had a vision to take boys passionate about playing baseball from around the Roaring Fork Valley and start a traveling baseball team.
Slade’s vision began small, with a few people buying in the beginning, but soon his vision would turn into the tight-knit baseball community that is the Western Slope JackRabbits.
Slade for the most part has coached the same group of boys for the last three years as the team has moved up from the 12,13 and 14 year-old age group divisions. This year will be the last year that most of them will play together as most will transition into the high school baseball programs of their respective towns.
The JackRabbits have boys from Meeker, Rifle, New Castle, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. All the players and their families commit to log significant amounts in travel to attend games or practices throughout the year.
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Slade likes to charge each player only $250 for the summer, which goes to the JackRabbits’ uniforms, which the players get to keep at the end of every season. It takes around $18,000 to run the program year-round, meaning that the program needs to fundraise in order to fund travel, pay for equipment and cover other expenses.Through the years, the Western Slope JackRabbits have received more and more help to support the baseball program.
“At the beginning of the program it was very individualistic, but through the years the idea of having one team — even though the team is under 13 different roofs — was really driven home. Soon this team atmosphere bled into the community, and people who aren’t even directly involved with the program started to help out,” Slade said.
The JackRabbits have been able to use local facilities to practice during the offseason because of the generosity of those inspired by the program. Caleb Roberts even lets the team use his barn for batting practice. The team also sees generosity from the local high schools like Glenwood Springs and Rifle so the team can practice in a gym in the winter months.
Slade also noted that they currently haven’t had to sell anything in order to fund their expenses; rather, the boys talk about the mission of the team, and the money follows their sentiments. Each donor also gets a piece of team memorabilia in return for their donation, whether it be a signed baseball, jersey or photos of the team.
Over the past three years, Slade has made it his personal priority to not only develop his players’ baseball skills but also their life skills to get them prepared for high school and beyond — a mission that helps in the selling of the team to donors.
“We really wanted to develop middle school kids not only athletically but also academically. We wanted for them to see the power of what a focus on academics and athletics can do for them. In this valley I think this is what most local high schools are missing; kids coming in who understand what it takes to excel as a student athlete,” said Slade
In the 2021 season, the JackRabbits have gotten the opportunity to play in a ton of games to really soak in the last year together as a team. They have been playing in tournaments from Utah to Nevada to right here in the Colorado area.
For Slade and the JackRabbits, winning in these tournaments is obviously of importance to the team, but it isn’t the sole focus. Rather, more importance is placed on the development of the player as well as the team atmosphere. Slade would rather coach a team that is tight knit and a family unit than to harp on the young men about winning games.
This past week, the JackRabbits played in the hometown Triple Crown Roaring Fork World Series, possibly the last tournament and weekend the current team will play before most of them head off to high school in the fall.
“It’s a bittersweet season. I have been coaching baseball for 20 years now, and this is by far the tightest knit team from players to family I have ever been a part of. It’s been an honor to send these guys to high school ready to excel,” Slade said.
When that last pitch is thrown, the last hit is recorded or the last run is brought in at the completion of the JackRabbits stint at the Triple Crown World Series, the team will walk off the field the same way they ran off it. As a family unit, now ready to take on what the next four years of high school throws at them.
It will be exciting to see the kids compete against each other as part of their high school programs, and I think this team has really impacted the valley in ways that go beyond baseball,” Slade said.
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Ivan Jackson joined LIFT-UP as its new executive director in August.