by Adam Burns
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Eli Small departed the batter’s box, began a trot and pointed to the sky to soak in the moment. The first person he shared the moment with was his father, first-base coach Jon Small. The son greeted his father with a high-five as he rounded first base and made his way to second.
Small had just directed a baseball well beyond the right-field fence for a three-run home run in the top of the seventh to give his Omaha Tigers a crucial five-run cushion on their way to a 9-4 victory over Patriots Baseball-QC Voodoo and a SlumpBuster 14u D1 title Sunday afternoon at the Council Bluffs Recreation Complex.
“Going around first and seeing my dad was definitely big for me,” Small said. “He said that all of my work paid off for moments like these.”
The homer occurred in the top of the seventh, a half inning after the Voodoo trimmed the deficit to 6-4. It was Small’s final at-bat of the SlumpBuster tourney, which the Tigers finished 8-0. It also served as his most significant homer, too, in recent memory with the blast coming on Father’s Day.
“I pointed to the sky because I play for God,” he said, “but I play for my dad, too. It felt good to put one out. It was huge.”
“In that moment I was more locked in and concerned more about that moment of the game,” Jon Small said, “but when he touched home plate and he looked at me and winked ... because he’s usually pretty serious and doesn’t really show a lot of emotion. So when he winked at me, that was special.”
There’s more to the story.
“It was a special moment for me and my dad, his grandpa, who was here, too,” Jon Small said. “I knew it was going to be his last at-bat of the day so I told him to have fun and enjoy it and then he hit the home run and then kind of winked … So it was just a fun moment and I’m just glad we got a five-run lead there.”
Small went 2-for-3 with three RBI to lead the Tigers, who claimed a SlumpBuster title for a second straight year in their own backyard. They won at the 13u level last year.
“Yeah, it was huge, showing people that Nebraska teams can hang with anyone around the country,” Small said. “It feels good to defend the home turf because we play here almost every weekend. It feels great.”
Tigers head coach Dave Vallinch agreed.
“We take a lot of pride in our baseball here in Omaha and there’s a lot of teams here that are really, really good,” he said. “Even the semifinal match with Millard Elite, they are very solid up and down the lineup and they compete.”
Outside of Small’s big fly, the Tigers’ offense produced three combined runs in the first two innings for a 3-0 lead. They added two runs in the fourth and a single tally in the fifth before Small drove in a trio of runs with one swing of the bat in the seventh.
Starter Johnny Vallinch notched the pitching victory and had one strikeout. Relief man Brady Tate recorded three punchouts.
The Voodoo mustered two runs prior to the sixth inning, where it made things interesting with a two-run frame. Jackson Rovig led Voodoo’s offense with two hits and three RBI. It was Small, who had a sacrifice fly in the second, though that changed everything with his homer.
“It was huge, obviously, knowing how they were trying to pitch him,” Vallinch said. “But he was looking for a pitch and got it in his area and he got it out for us. Three-run home runs always help, especially late.”
Yes, three-run homers never hurt, but not many can make this much of an impact. Especially on Father’s Day. On the SlumpBuster stage, too.
“He’s at the point where he doesn’t keep his home run balls because he’s hit a lot of them,” Jon Small said. “But he wanted that one. He said ‘I want that one — a Father’s Day home run. It was a cool moment, one that we’ll remember for a long time.”