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Cortez Freedom Cats play through pandemic

Manager Tim Passell strives for ‘sense of normalcy’

After the Colorado High School Activities Association canceled the 2020 high school baseball season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, prep players across the state struggled to find opportunities to play.

But Montezuma-Cortez High School coaches Tim Passell and Brett Likes, stepped in to give several dedicated players in the area the chance to hone their skills as members of the Cortez Freedom Cats club team.

“It’s important for these kids to keep some sense of normalcy during this pandemic,” Passell said. “It was tough for these kids – a lot of them lost their spring season, and it was really important for us to get going this summer.”

With the help of the American Legion Ute Mountain Post and the Legion Ladies Auxiliary, Passell and Likes began hosting practices for Freedom Cats players in late June.

Three teams, a U18 team, a U16 team, and a U14 team were formed, and although opponents proved scarce, the Freedom Cats competed in the Telluride Baseball Festival, hosted in Cortez in June.

“We didn’t know if we were going to get any games or not,” Passell said. “We were just out here working. We played in the tournament here in Cortez, and we’ve been picking up games here and there. I’m just going to keep these guys rolling.”

Among the standout players for the Freedom Cats this season have been incoming seniors Korie Likes, Dylan Kibel, Ty Blackmer and Ernesto Padilla. Likes has attracted interest from college baseball programs, and Kibel, Blackmer and Padilla will represent Colorado during a national baseball showcase this fall.

Other up-and-coming players for the Freedom Cats include incoming junior Trinidad McDonnel, who has looked impressive on the mound, and freshman Miles Frost, whose propensity to get on base has impressed coaches and teammates.

Sophomores Braden Hallman, Jake Blackmer, Wyatt Foster and Landon Gropp also have turned heads, as have freshmen Darren Daves, Bobby Likes and Samson Lein.

“I love being able to get out here and actually do something and play ballgames,” said Blackmer. “I thank the coaches, Passell and (Likes). “Playing this summer will be good for us in the high school season.”

Playing their most recent game in Cortez against a team from Dolores and Dove Creek, the Freedom Cats committed no errors en route to a 4-2 victory.

Blackmer started on the mound for the Freedom Cats and used a fastball and off-speed pitches to limit his opponents to two earned runs while striking out a game-high 10 batters.

“I felt like everything was working the best that it ever has,” Blackmer said. “I felt confident out there, and I felt like I was throwing strikes.”

Opposing Blackmer on the mound was Dove Creek High School senior Hayden Gray, whose sizzling fastball kept Freedom Cats hitters in check during the early innings before a two-run single by Frost and run-scoring hits by Hallman broke the game open.

“Gray was throwing well, but we adjusted a bit,” Kibel said. “I struck out the first at bat, but we started rolling it in later innings, which was nice.”

Kibel thanked teammates and coaches before saying that he believes that he and his teammates can stay safe.

“The best part about baseball, it’s a social distancing sport,” Kibel said. “We’ll be able to play it better during the school year than most other sports will.”