At least 11 alumni from William Monroe High School are currently playing baseball as part of the Rockingham County Baseball League (RCBL). The Greene County Record recently caught up with five of our former players, as well as one of the league coaches, to learn more about this long-lasting summer pastime.
“The league is very competitive—it provides players an opportunity to better their skills,” said Montezuma Braves Coach Chris Rush. “Nobody gets paid in this league—it’s all volunteer. Everybody that’s in this league is in it because they love the game. … So games are usually very good because you have a lot of players and coaches out there that are there for the right reason—because they truly want to get better. They love the game.”
The RCBL has been in operation since 1924, when Polly Lineweaver, a sportswriter for the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, helped organize seven teams from Rockingham County. According to rcblbaseball.com’s virtual museum of league history, the founding teams represented the communities of Briery Branch, Bridgewater, Broadway, Dayton, Keezletown, Linville-Edom and Spring Creek. They began play on June 28, 1924, and have not missed a season in 98 years—even despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teams have come and gone over the years, representing various communities within the founding counties of Rockingham, Augusta, Page and Shenandoah and surrounding areas. Today, the eight teams that make up the league are the Bridgewater Reds, Broadway Bruins, Clover Hill Bucks, Elkton Blue Sox, Grottoes Cardinals, Montezuma Braves, New Market Shockers and the Stuarts Draft Diamondbacks.
“I grew up watching our league, but I got into working right out of high school and just didn’t make time (to play),” said Rush, who has been coaching for RCBL for eight years—the past three with the Braves. “Over the years, it’s really become an almost semi-collegiate league with a lot of younger players—a lot of division three and division two and junior college players, and then also a lot of high school seniors who are getting ready to go off to college and are using our league as that kind of transition step.”
According to Rush, 70-80% of players are current college athletes, so the high school graduates get a chance to see what playing at the collegiate level will be like while keeping their conditioning up in the summer.
“That side of the mountain produces some really, really good baseball players—good athletes in general,” Rush said. “That kind of Route 29 corridor of Greene and Madison, even up into Culpeper and Albemarle, is … a big recruiting area for us—for every team in the League.”
Although the four founding counties are Augusta, Rockingham, Page and Shenandoah, any county that shares a boundary with those four is considered part of the recruiting area for local players.
“Even though the League has changed over the years, 75-80% of the League is still those local kids that fans are going to know and fans want to come out and see,” Rush said.
Three William Monroe alumni are pitchers for the Montezuma Braves this season: Lance Tate, a 2020 grad who now plays for Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee; Derek Ryan, another 2020 grad who pitches at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU); and Braydon Collier, a 2019 grad who also pitches at EMU. Logan Jones, who graduated in 2019, plays first base for EMU, as well.
“Each team can carry up to 30 players and most teams really focus on pitching,” Rush explained. “Next week we have five games … so pitching is always every team’s big thing—having enough pitchers to get through your games.”
According to Rush, since students tend to take some time off during the season to enjoy summer vacations with their families, each team needs to have enough for not just a starting lineup but backups as well, particularly for pitchers.
“Our league is very important to us, but we also realize that most of these players have a college career and some are trying to get past college into that next level, so we try to very much take care of our guys to make sure that we’re keeping them healthy during the summer,” he said. “When it comes to pitchers, we’re giving them plenty of rest—we’re not putting them back on the mound too soon.”
For Lance Tate, playing for the Braves is a chance to catch up with his old high school teammates while he’s home for the summer.
“It’s a very chill atmosphere,” he said. “You get to be around a big group of other guys who play college baseball, and you also play against grown men over there. The oldest one I know right now is 46 years old. … In college, I’m six hours away from home. I grew up playing with Derek (Ryan), Braydon (Collier), (Jonathan) Sexton and Logan (Jones). You kind of miss home and playing with them … and it’s cool be back on the field with them.”
With the abrupt ending of the spring 2020 season at WMHS due to the coronavirus pandemic and the shuttering of schools, Tate was grateful for the chance to practice with the summer league before leaving to play baseball in college.
“This is what the summer is for,” he said. “Especially for guys in college, you work on what you need to work on. … Especially for me, being a pitcher, getting innings and facing live batters and, you know, getting ready and preparing myself for the fall and next spring.”
Tate said he enjoys the friendly atmosphere of the games, where many family members and locals come out to support all the league teams. On an off night, players will also go support other local teams at their games.
“No matter where you go over there, the community is there to support those teams and to cheer them on and to be behind them,” he said. “Especially when we play in Clover Hill, … you walk out there in the outfield and you can’t even see grass, it’s so packed sometimes. The energy’s there, and I think that’s what gets us going and makes us play even harder.”
For Ryan, another Braves pitcher, it was his college coach who talked him into trying out for the League.
“I’ve known guys through the years that have played; when I was younger we used to go to some of the games, and then when I got into EMU after my senior year, Coach (Adam) Posey talked to Coach Rush about giving me a spot on the team so I could play some more during the summer,” Ryan said. “Once you get in touch with the coach, you’ll come out to a practice before the season starts and they’ll make a decision whether they want to keep you (and if) you want to sign the contract.”
In his second season with the League, Ryan joined in 2020 when no other area leagues were open because of the pandemic. He throws an 83 mph fastball, a curveball and a slider and also works on a farm in Madison and is helping his dad coach a showcase team. He’s currently studying to be a mechanical engineer and enjoys fishing when he has any spare time between school and baseball.
“Especially in the last 10 years or so, baseball’s been really big at William Monroe,” Ryan said. “In 2012 they won a state championship; 2013 they went back to states; 2016 they came in second in states … a lot of good players have come out of it.”
With the large roster of most league teams, even with just family members in the audience a game can draw a sizeable crowd.
“Especially over there in the county league, there are a lot of people that live in that area that they go to every game, and that just creates a really good environment,” Ryan said. “Even last year, there were still a lot of people out at some of the big games. You show up and everybody’s ready to play—everybody’s there for a good time. You don’t really have any pressure.”
Collier plays with Jones and Ryan at EMU and played in high school with Tate, as well.
“When I was younger, I played for other teams like the Blue Ridge Bombers and then the Legion teams out of Albemarle,” Collier said. “Once I went to William Monroe, my coaches talked about (RCBL). Driving to Harrisonburg for games isn’t terrible … my roommate played for the Braves and he told me to reach out to the coach, and that’s pretty much where it started.”
For Collier, who is working at Field & Stream in Charlottesville this summer, he appreciates his managers’ willingness to work with him on keeping his evenings free for ball games. When he doesn’t need to work the next day, he’ll often carpool with one of his teammates for the hour-long ride to Montezuma and sometimes stays the night in his Harrisonburg apartment.
“When I’m at school, we’ve got fall ball and then off season in the winter when we’re at home we’ve got conditioning and throwing programs,” he said. “Then you come back for spring season and … then you go into the RCBL. I might miss a game here or there, but being a pitcher, I don’t really have to be at every game because I’m not going to pitch every game.”
Collier throws a two-seam fastball, a curveball, a slider and a changeup. His top speed in the spring was 85 mph.
“Knowing my limits is a big thing for the summer—not overdoing it, keeping my arm healthy pretty much,” he said. “Doing long tosses to keep my arm healthy and prevent injuries the best I can and just really focusing on knowing your limits but still doing what you can to prevent those injuries and gain arm strength.”
Between T-ball, rec league, All Stars, travel and showcase ball, high school and now college and summer league, he estimates his parents have been watching him play for at least 16 years.
“There’s always a good crowd at the games; it’s awesome,” he said. “Everyone in that area just loves baseball and loves to watch it. If there’s high school or college students that want to play in the summer and want to have a good time, RCBL’s a great place to play.”
Collier is studying environmental science and photography, and says he enjoys the summer league because he has fewer responsibilities to juggle than during the school year.
“That’s a good thing about this league,” he said. “I just was in Michigan for this last week and now I’m in the Outer Banks, so my coach is pretty lenient with vacations. He does a good job with making sure you get your playing time in before you go.”
Jones plays first base for the Braves as well as for EMU.
“With school ball, we practice every day and—at least for me—I don’t really get as much playing time as I would like,” Jones said. “Being on summer ball teams, the games are at night, so I’m playing under the lights—which is always fun. I’m getting to play every game; I’m getting practice in; I’m getting repetitions … It’s just fun; it’s more relaxed—playing with different guys, meeting new people and having a good time.”
Jones will be missing a few games for a family trip to the Outer Banks later this month.
“Once the season got started, we don’t really have time to practice,” he said. “We’re playing three or four games a week. It’s hard sometimes because I work in Orange and I’ve got to be there at 7 o’clock in the morning and when I play at 7:30 at night and don’t get home until 12 and then do the same the next day, it pays a toll on me.”
For Sexton, playing as catcher and outfielder for the Bridgewater College Eagles led naturally to playing in the summer league for the Bridgewater Reds.
“It was one of five collegiate leagues to stay open throughout COVID, so we ended up merging with the Valley League last season,” Sexton said. “Last summer, when the Valley League got shut down, all those guys came and played with us. It’s kind of a really close-knit community that runs all the way from Stuarts Draft up to New Market.”
Sexton enjoys seeing his former high school teammates at games as well as playing against other college players and alumni.
“It’s one of our biggest assets as a college baseball player, to continue to play all year all year long and work on the craft,” he said. “With the summer league, you’re not as tense as you would be during a regular college season, so it’s kind of time to relax, enjoy and work on fundamentals and things that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to work on in a spring season.”
Sexton said he enjoys his role on the Bridgewater College team and really feels like has become part of the RCBL community over the past three summers.
“Last season when Sean Young ended up getting injured, I did a little fundraiser over there for him and a lot of those people really donated. … Even though I’m not from over there, they took me in like family. It’s definitely somewhere I plan to stay for a long time, even after my years of college baseball,” he said.
Other William Monroe alumni who are currently on the RCBL roster include Reilly Owen of the New Market Shockers (Shenandoah University); Sal Coyle of the Bridgewater Reds; Hunter Powell, Jared Shifflett and Gauge Jenkins of the Elkton Blue Sox; and Keegan Woolford of the Grottoes Cardinals (Shenandoah University).
With 28 games in a typical season (Memorial Day through mid-August including playoffs), there are 12 games in the coming week; the majority of them are free to attend, so check the schedule if you’re looking for a family-friendly summer outing. And don’t forget the peanuts and Cracker Jacks—concessions are one of the only ways these teams help offset the costs of field maintenance, officials and uniforms each year.
“Each team tries to not just make it good baseball and very competitive baseball—we also try to make it a very fan- and family-friendly atmosphere,” Rush said.