A slip against Dickinson brought a close to the Indian River High School’s 2008 varsity baseball season last week. But, for six of the team’s athletes, it meant the end of an era. The talent and experience that gelled together for them at IRHS was nearly a decade in the making, as two juniors and four recently-graduated seniors now reflect on their time on the diamond, from Little League state champs to the all-stars they’re preparing themselves to be today.
“It’s been a lot of fun playing with all of the guys,” said outfielder Eric Huovinen Jr. “If I didn’t have sports, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Huovinen’s baseball career began around age 9, when his father, Eric Huovinen Sr., assumed the coaching position for the local Lower Sussex Little League team. The senior Huovinen was accompanied in the coaching role by Jim Lewis, whose son, Sean, also suited up for the games. Sean Lewis, at the time, jumped around the infield positions.
Also on the team were Trevor Abbott, Cameron Travelini and Luis Barrientos. Travelini’s stepfather, Randy Bowden, helped manage and coach the boys, too, establishing a strong connection with each player.
The team and friendships grew, and a few years later, on the 11- and 12-year-old team, the five would help take the Lower Sussex team to a 2002 state championship and a bid to the Mid-Atlantic regionals in Bristol, Conn.
It was the first time a Lower Sussex team in that age bracket had clenched states. In the opening game of regionals, they’d battle their way to a 2-0 victory over the defending regional champs from New Jersey. Their ride to the championships came to an end soon after, but their camaraderie and dedication to one another was just starting.
“All of us have always been great friends,” said Abbott, “but it’s really been a chemistry thing. We’ve pretty much stayed together. We had a good team year after year and understood each other.”
A few seasons later, their roster would add Luke Wingate, another solid athlete and one who assisted the 13- and 14-year-old team to another state championship, in 2004.
“When you work together as well as we could,” said Abbott, “you know what to expect from everyone. You know exactly how the next guy will react in a situation, and that gave us a lot of confidence. It was all we needed to get that hit and make that play.”
The impact of their camaraderie was apparent to Eric Huovinen Sr., who saw every aspect of the team’s game improve with in the months that followed, from the Selbyville Middle School teams and onto the Indian River High School diamond.
“They all sort of took turns jumping on different teams together as they grew up,” he said. “It actually all probably started back when they were 8 and 9 years old, playing travel soccer with Craig Connover. A lot of these same guys started with the River program out in Roxana. Most of the kids were on that team as well, and that was the first time they really came together as a team and played. They knew each other by then, and everything started falling into place.”
Wingate, who has juggled his baseball skills with his long-time passion for soccer, still appreciated the companionship amongst himself and his teammates when he took to the lineup in 2004.
“You could tell how comfortable we were around each other,” he said. “It was an awesome experience. Not a lot of people can say they won a state championship with their team, and it was real exciting to actually do it.”
Sean Lewis, who suffered career-threatening injuries in high school, was able to return his senior year, playing right down to the last inning the six would ever play together.
“It’s been really cool to be playing together as long and successful as we have,” said Lewis. “Some of us have been all-stars since we were first able, and we’ve always been the best of the best. We’ve had some really awesome players join us at Indian River, and that was great, too. Nick [Kmetz] and Cory [Showalter] are great players, and we backed them 100 percent. It’s easy to come together quickly when you’re all good friends like we were. Everyone adapted well.”
“It’s pretty amazing how they have all managed to stay together,” remarked Eric Huovinen Sr. “They started really long ago, on different teams, but there’s that core group of five or six guys who have really stuck together. I think sports have really kept a lot of these guys together and kept them out of trouble. They’ve done a good job looking out for one another, and that’s a good reflection of their social life.”
As the players progressed to the high-school level, head coach Howard Smack saw an obvious fluidity in the group’s performance.
“All of them seemed to have the same, strong qualities,” he said. “They’d assume a leadership role a lot of the times, and they’d take the initiative to start practices. They often carried each others’ backs, and they were always ready to go to work.”
Smack said he is looking forward to the surging talent he’s seen from Travelini and Barrientos when they return next year as seniors. But, with the other four, as well as the rest of his graduating athletes, it’s going to be a tough bounce back for the Indians.
“Their brilliance really came out this year,” he added. “It’s definitely going to be difficult to replace them next year. They were all leaders. They flowed so well together, and you can’t ask for much more than that.”
To add to the long ties for this group, Smack coached Wingate’s father at Selbyville Middle School.
The four seniors plan to go their separate ways, with different schools, different priorities, although no one will forget just how far they have come together as individuals and as a team.
Wingate looks to return to the soccer field this fall, this time at the collegiate level. Eric Huovinen Jr. will be heading to Florida, while Lewis will be swinging a bat at Del Tech.
“The times have been fun,” said Abbott, who will test his pitching skills at Salisbury University. “College is a whole new game, but everybody else is coming into that situation. I know all of us will still be in touch — that will stay the same.”