FORT KNOX, Ky. – It’s a difficult task for any sports team to have an undefeated season, but a group of military kids did just that this summer, despite never having played together before.
“They started the season not really knowing each other at all,” said Christina Johnson, whose son Michael was a member of the 2021 Fort Knox Reds.
Christina said she and her husband Jessie had the incredible opportunity to be in the stands for the team’s unprecedented season.
“It was a massive accomplishment,” said Jessie. “You could just see it on all their faces.”
Brandon Cullum-Parker, a youth sports and fitness specialist with Fort Knox Child and Youth Services, attributed the team’s success to its two volunteer coaches: Col. Daniel Gilbert and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Sandoval. Both Soldiers also had sons on the team.
“Coach Gilbert and Coach Sandoval volunteered and gave up their time,” said Cullum-Parker, “and you can see what happens when [coaches] are willing to do that for the kids here on post.”
Gilbert said he and Sandoval were paired together, only meeting for the first time as coach and assistant coach when the season started in March. Once they were assigned to their team, they had about one month to get to know each other, practice together with the team, and get the kids used to a pitching machine before their first game.
According to Gilbert, that month of practice made all the difference.
“The growth in terms of their abilities was visibly appreciable,” said Gilbert. “They went from that first practice, where the machine-pitch starts throwing and their instinct was to just jump out of the way, to progress and becoming really good little leaguers. That was incredible to watch.”
The group of 14 seven and eight-year-olds who had never met – some never having played the game before – were now figuring out how to be a team.
For Gilbert and Sandoval, their most difficult task was to ascertain how to be the best coach for the young kids. He said they were constantly adjusting their tactics, focusing on how to instill teamwork and ensuring every player was having fun. It was that mentality that Gilbert said ended up being what made them so successful.
“That’s one of the things that makes us the most proud of our season,” said Gilbert, “because by doing that, it was a true team effort.”
Once it was time to start playing against the 10 other teams in the tri-county league, Gilbert said they experienced a whole new level of uncertainty.
“I don’t think any of us knew what to expect,” said Gilbert, “and then we went out there and won our first game.”
Christina said the parents also recognized something special was happening.
“It was really hard at first, but the coaches kind of pulled everyone together. I feel like they did it so well,” Christina said. “They took these boys from being strangers at the beginning to ending the season more as brothers.”
The team took home victories every game of the regular season – several times coming back from a deficit. Gilbert said it’s unique for a Fort Knox team to have such a winning season, simply because kids rotate in and out so much and don’t have the opportunity to get used to growing up playing together.
The team finished the regular season 11-0. For the first time in recent years, a Fort Knox team was entering the post-season tournament undefeated, according to Cullum-Parker.
Temperatures on the day of their first tournament game reached the high 90s. Despite the heat, the team won their first game, although it was the following day that would prove even more daunting.
Another extremely hot day, June 30 was the final one of the tournament. It would be a double header for the championship. It was during that first game the Reds faced their biggest challenge of the season.
“We were down seven to two,” said Gilbert. “In the back of my mind I kept thinking, ‘I hope it doesn’t end this way.’”
Jessie recalled how discouraged the kids began feeling. He said he knew he had to help the team regain its confidence.
“I pulled them all together in the dugout and said, ‘We’re the comeback team,’” Jessie said. “’We’ve done it all year, coming back from completely losing a game until the last inning and winning it. This isn’t any different.’ It kind sparked them to think, ‘Ok, we can do this!’
“It motivated them a little bit, and you could see them get back in the game.”
The team was able to get the runs needed to tie the game, pushing it into two additional innings — but the clock was ticking ...
“The games play to a time, so we went into that last inning knowing we were out of time,” Gilbert said. “We were down to our last strike. Then one of the kids, Chase Kuderka, got a hit and he set the table for his older brother Colton.”
With the bases loaded, Colton came up to bat. Time was up, all but one out was left, and then crack! Gilbert said it was one of those moments no one thinks they’ll ever witness:
“He hit a grand slam on the last pitch of the game.”
Christina described how everyone in the stands was standing, cheering. However, the celebration was short-lived. That win meant they only had about 15 minutes to grab a snack and rehydrate before it was time to face Rineyville for the championship.
The team took the field for the second time that day. Then, at nearly 9 p.m., in 90-degree heat, they sealed their undefeated season with a 16-4 win.
“The crowd was just insane,” Jessie said. “You would think you were at a minor league baseball game.”
Instead of the more common occurrence of having a trophy presentation at a later date, Gilbert explained the league brought out the awards and distributed them to the players right there on the field.
Jessie said everyone could tell this was more than just a trophy to them.
“There was a different look in every kids’ eyes,” Jessie said. “This trophy showed them how hard they worked; how dedicated and motivated, and how much teamwork they developed through the year.”
According to Gilbert, being handed their trophies had another meaning, as well.
“They all knew what ‘undefeated’ meant,” said Gilbert. “They were able to grasp at seven or eight years old the significance of it, which is pretty cool because it doesn’t happen all that often.”
Cullum-Parker said the hope now is that more installation teams can have experiences like the remarkable one of the 2021 Reds. The key is to get more dedicated coaches like Gilbert and Sandoval involved.
“We just need those who can volunteer their time so we can give these kids the opportunity, and hopefully we can have similar stories to this Fort Knox Reds team in the future,” said Cullum-Parker. “We have kids that can compete with any team in this local area, and when we get coaches that are willing to dedicate their time and their knowledge, they can do anything, as this team has done.”
Gilbert said he never planned on coaching, but it ended up being something he’ll never forget. He said he hopes others will make the same decision, so even more children get opportunities to make the kind of memories his team made – especially after losing an entire year of playing due to the pandemic.
Gilbert said feats like this help them forget about the time they lost.
“Nobody remembers they didn’t get to play last year,” said Gilbert. “All they remember is that they had the time of their life for three months playing for the Fort Knox Reds.”
Editor’s note: For more information on volunteering as a coach, call 502-624-4248. Parents interested in signing up their children for youth sports should CLICK HERE for details.