Aurora’s ‘77 Midgets still stands at the pinnacle

Forty years ago, gas was 62 cents a gallon, the average price of a home was $54,200, Fleetwood Mac’s album “Rumors” stayed at No. 1 for 31 weeks, Star Wars opened in theaters and became the highest grossing film of its time, and, oh by the way, Aurora’s Legion baseball team, the Midgets, took state by destroying anything and everything that stood in its way.
And when you bring the subject up, some of those same players still have that special gleam in their eyes.
That year, 1977, that team was undoubtedly one of the best if not the best ever baseball team this town has ever produced, regardless of age. That team, led by the hitting of Kevin Penner, Morris Hadenfeldt, Mitch Carter among others, and the pitching of Dave Haase, Mike Funk and Carter, won 23 of 26 games, including going 5-0 during their single-elimination post-season run.
It was the last time that age group brought home the championship trophy.
“One (loss) was to Kearney, class A, another to Palmer, class C, and Broken Bow,” noted former catcher and part-time pitcher Scott Werner, one of the older players on the team heading into his senior year of high school. “We played everybody twice, so we came back and beat those teams. The previous year we qualified for state here in Aurora but it wasn’t with these guys (this team).”
Kevin Penner, who would go on to play college ball at Wichita State, had just finished up his freshman year in middle school.
“The team age-wise was more juniors-to-be,” he explained. “We didn’t grow up playing together, but we had a potential dynasty because we could have been good for a long time. That next year, Mitch and Dan (Ediger) didn’t go out and a bunch of other guys, too. I was just devastated.”
Added Scott about that following year, “Mitch was playing in the all-star basketball game, Haase was in the Shrine Bowl and others got jobs. But we walked through that state tournament. We could have been good for years. At the time, when you are 16 or 17, you don’t appreciate a championship as much as you do as you get older. They are hard to win and very special.”
The team was coached by Doug Strohmeyer, who was the sports editor at the News-Register at the time. He was one for fundamentals, and it certainly provided plenty of results on the diamond.
“That year laid the foundation for years to come for our group,” pointed out Cal Strong, who played a little left field, right field and second base. “The next three years, we were very competitive.
“Funk and I played up. We skipped intermediates because there weren’t enough players for a team, so it was four grades playing Legion Midget ball, which was unheard of.”
Scott said the group as a whole all played a variety of sports, but when it came to baseball, something just clicked.
“Today, we’d be really good with three good pitchers and with double elimination. We were just solid. We knew each other, what we were all going to do.”
Kevin mentioned that the guys never lifted weights during the season because that would come during football conditioning. He also got the game-ending hit in the title game against Ogallala, the tournament at York, putting Aurora up 10-0 to end the contest after six innings.
“I got jammed,” he recalled, “and I just kind of plopped one into center field. And that was it. We celebrated.”
Funk would pitch a complete game that night, allowing only three singles.
Cal recalled that he had fun just being a member of the team, and that it was a good group, one that got an extra game in before they called it a season.
”We did a road trip to Salina and we went down to play an all-star team or something,” Cal said. “Strohmeyer was from there or went to college down there. But they were good. I didn’t even see the ball, it came by so fast.
“But we just had an enormous amount of talent and we were all passionate about baseball. I remember we would go down and play at the ball field all afternoon. That was our fun.”
Scott added that pitching was the obvious strength of this team, one that had the luxury of playing Kevin in the outfield instead of on the mound.
Kevin would go on to become Nebraska high school’s athlete of the year in 1980. He was a four-sport standout but it was baseball  that carried him all the way to the 1982 College World Series and the 1983 Pan American Games. Drafted by the Texas Rangers, he was All-American in baseball in 1985. He is also a member of the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Haase would go on earn a scholarship to play quarterback for the Huskers and Tom Osborne, while Carter played basketball at Kearney State College. Another player, Kyle Fisher, would go on to become a minor league baseball general manager, including a stint in Omaha.
The ‘77 Midgets would face Blair in the opening round at state, then beat York in the semi to advance to face Ogallala. Again, one loss and they were done, but Strohmeyer kept them focused.
“He was everything,” said Cal. “He was a skinny guy but he loved baseball. He was a true coach. He knew baseball. He taught us fundamentals that we had never seen. But a great guy. We lost track of him though.”
“He was quiet and unassuming,” added Scott. “We lost our first game of the season, and he got after us a little bit. He said he would take responsibility for that one, but that the rest was on us.”
While that state championship trophy has gone missing in action, the players were given some cool, blue wind breakers instead of medals, some which are still around today.
In fact, Scott’s son Derek hunt it up in the dugout for good luck when he played baseball.
“It was kind of a running joke,” Scott added.
Unlike that ‘77 team, which proved to be lethal.
DAVE BRADLEY can be reached at

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