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James Mendoza softball tourney keeps growing: 15 teams honor his memory, passion for game
August 19, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Lindsey Trackwell, playing for Lozoya Home Repair, lets a high throw get past her at first base during the James Mendoza Coed Softball Tournament at the Carpenter Center in Terrytown on Saturday. It wasn’t a costly error. The team advanced, but lost in the next round.

A record 15 teams entered the James Mendoza Coed Softball Tournament at the Carpenter Center in Terrytown over the weekend, August 12-13.

Competing in two separate brackets, TR Drywall topped Cornfield Crush, and Young Bloodz prevailed over Aaron’s Mixed Nuts.

Yet, winning or losing wasn’t the point.

Mostly friends and family members who played on the teams gathered in memory of James Mendoza, who lost his life on August 30, 2009, in the same year the memorial softball tournament was started because of James’ passionate involvement in softball and baseball.

“He was robbed of his life, and we were robbed, too,” said James’ mother Mary Ann Mendoza. Mary Ann called James’ death senseless and meaningless driven by nothing other than bravado. James was accused of disrespectful glances, which spurred out-of-control anger by his attacker, and the result was, he was stabbed to death on the corner of 33rd Street and Ave. D in Scottsbluff.

The first tournament was organized by Mary Ann’s sister Rose Richter and Sam Serda, as a gathering to bring all of James’ friends together. Players described the first year as somber, with the tragedy still fresh on their minds, but later regarded the tournament as a time to remember the happiness James brought to the community because he played.

At the tourney, under sunny skies, a perfect day, teams took their turns battling it out on two fields while local DJs Edward Salazar and Christian Parra played loud, vibrant rhythms, causing passersby to dance, building on an already feel-good atmosphere.

“He always played softball. You name it, coed, the men’s league in Scottsbluff, and baseball, too,” Mary Ann said. He loved the games so immensely, he spent summer’s in Chadron to play with Mary Ann’s brother-in-law Curt Holmquist.

James stayed with his aunt and uncle over the summer, and hung out with his cousin Alec. “They were about a grade apart,” said Holmquist, a retired Chadron High School teacher and coach. He recalled the first time James came up. He was almost 8. “I was coaching Alec’s baseball team, and we were missing a player. We got permission for him to play. I knew he loved baseball. He really enjoyed it. So, he came up the next summer and that continued for five or six summers in a row, through the Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth leagues. In those years, he and Alec would hound me to go back out to the baseball field, to hit and play catch. He just had a passion for the game. James was like part of the family. We also sold fireworks, so, he got to know a lot of the kids in Chadron.”

Holmquist added that James also became friends with Chadron State quarterback John McClain, who started out as redshirt freshman in 2009, then set a single-season passing record in 2012, and his senior year in 2014 was named team captain. “James’ passing affected John,” Holmquist said. “He’d often wear the memorial softball tourney T-shirts during practice, and I’m not sure about games, but he thought a lot of James, which gave him some motivation.”

Holmquist said James’ funeral was the day of Chadron High’s football season-opener against Torrington (Wyoming). Following the funeral and rosary, his son Alec approached his dad. “He told me he was just tired being sad,” Holmquist said. “It was as much as he could take. This year’s tourney was the best, and it keeps getting better.”

Each team’s roster listed five women and five men, and often, the tournament runs two or three days to decide champion, or in this case, champions. Adding to the list headed by Mary Ann’s own team, the Niners, were teams with rosters filled with family members who travelled from Oregon and Colorado. In state, friends who knew James formed teams hailing from Kearney and North Platte.

A close friend to James, Justin Gomez played for Miller Lite, which did not fare well this year, but had won two tournament titles in the past. Gomez said the tournament is “great because it helps keep memories alive. It means a lot to his family and mom. It’s always difficult for them this time of year, but each year it grows, and it shows how much it means to the community. It’s not a sad thing; we try to remember all the good times. He was the class clown. He was the kid in the dugout that always made you laugh. You couldn’t be around James without him cracking a joke about something, but in a good way.”

After high school, James and Gomez worked together at Panhandle Concrete on a three-man box culvert crew. “James actually got me the job, and we had lived together for about six months before I went off to barber school in Lincoln, a week before he died,” said Gomez, who now cuts hair at The Roots in downtown Gering. Their closeness brought them common ground. “He was dating my best friend Sarah, so we hung out a lot, and his sister Samantha was in my 2006 graduating class in Gering.”

The two also played baseball together from the time they were 14 until Gomez played for Gering Legion Seniors at age 19; the last time they saw each other in a baseball or softball uniform was in 2007.

James graduated in 2008, and would have been 27 on August 14.

“For me, my son, he lives on through everybody who comes here,” Mary Ann said. “It’s a time for everyone to get together to remember him. It makes me feel good. He knew a lot of them as friends.”

Mary Ann added, “If there was an apology and forgiveness” from the family who was responsible for James’ untimely fate, she said, “in some way, I’d feel more at peace. Thanks to the Man up above for giving us another year to have the tournament and good weather. I want to thank Him for allowing me to borrow one of His children to have as my own for a short time.”

For now, the community surrounds her every time this year, passing by her, giving her warm hugs and words. She in turn thanked numerous supporters, especially Executive Director of the Carpenter Center Bob Nemnich.

On the busiest day of the tourney, Saturday, Steel Grill team members Jared Portnier, K.C. McKee, and David Cervantes, who play in the Scottsbluff Men’s League caught up with Mary Ann to present a team jersey to her. The bright red Steel Grill shirt bore the No. 9, and was signed by current players. Portnier, 34, who played with James for a year, said, “Though (James) was younger, he was a great talent, but he was gone too soon. I don’t play softball anymore, but I always come out to support Mary Ann and the tournament.”

McKee, 33, the Steel Grill’s softball team coach, said, “James put in a lot of work; he was a great kid, taken too soon, and coming back and playing honors him. We show love for him.” In the 2010 season, the Steel Grill team dedicated the season to James, hanging his jersey in the dugout.

They had stamped James’ initials and the No. 9 on the right sleeve of all their game jerseys. Feeling James’ spirit, the Grillers went on to win the league title that year.

“There were a lot of good memories of him,” Mary Ann said. “He was a tight hugger and gave playful sloppy kisses. He was fun and had a good sense of humor. He’d take the shirt off his back for anyone; he was always helpful that way. He’d go places and a lot of people knew him. He was always smiling.”

This year’s teams also included Chain Gang, Lozoya Home Repair, Suicide Squad, 22 Squad, Hitten Pitches, Swingers, No Name Necessary, The Zone, and GO Army.

All teams paid a $150 entrance fee with proceeds going to the Mendoza family, and Carpenter Center youth programs.

As a tradition, a reception at Eagle followed.
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